The Girl at the Door
Harry Martindale couldn’t tell if it was rain or sleet loudly pelting his darkened windows. Either way, it was a nasty night to be caught outside. Terry and Edie, his dachshunds, were sleeping, curled together at their end of the sofa, Harry at the other. It was certainly cold enough for sleet, but the radio in the kitchen had no mention of it earlier in the afternoon. The big pot of navy bean soup was still on the stove and Harry considered having another bowl but that would mean getting up, and he was simply too warm and comfortable to move. Besides, it would wake the dogs and they would want to go out. Their grey muzzles were proof that Harry wasn’t the only one getting on in years. The house itself was even older, built by his father-in-law in 1922 on a low rise at the center of a small family cherry orchard near Thunder Bay. Michigan cherries were known for their deep red, nearly black color, and a sweetness that rivaled hard candy. The season was short but they grew abundantly, and for decades families on vacation would park their station wagons along the dirt road and buy shining baskets full of fruit all summer long.
Harry watched the dogs’ round bellies slowly rise and fall. How old were they? Not being able to remember annoyed him. Of course his dear Barbara could have told him, but she had been gone almost two years. It didn’t seem possible, that they had been together for nearly sixty years, beginning with Harry’s first chance visit to the Wilson Orchard. He had been driving to Canada for a fresh start after the war but the orchard was as far north as he would ever get. Twenty year old Barbara’s pale blue eyes and shy smile were all it took and Harry bought a ridiculous amount of cherries just to prolong that first visit.
Barbara’s cancer went undetected for years but took her quickly, leaving Harry and the dogs alone a week after his seventy-eighth birthday, making Harry nearly eighty now. At least he knew how old he was, if not the dogs. Harry dealt with his wife’s absence by refusing to deal with it. He couldn’t bear to donate her clothes to strangers. Barbara’s old pink terrycloth robe still hung on the back of the bathroom door. Harry didn’t simply want it there, he needed it there. The mute emptiness she left behind was almost a presence in itself and it frightened him. He often spoke aloud to her, in the kitchen with his morning coffee or washing the dishes after a meal. It helped him cope. He had to be careful not to do that at the grocery or the hardware store. Church on Sunday was out of the question. He had stopped going when Barbara died, terrified her widowed friends would descend on him like crows on ripe fruit.
The Honorable Judge Robert Ferguson performed the civil wedding ceremony at the Thunder Bay courthouse. Barbara had been raised Episcopalian but Harry had no such affiliation, making Barbara’s father, Coleman Wilson, reluctant to give his blessing. He was not keen on giving his only daughter away to a man from the city. Detroit may not have been a den of thieves, but there were enough saloons and gambling houses to tempt even an honest man. In the end, Barbara’s obvious joy when in Harry’s company won Coleman over. Harry was no idle drifter. He was a skilled sheet metal worker, having spent the war years in Pensacola repairing aircraft. He rarely met the pilots of the fighter planes he worked on but gave the job all he had. Any man who could fly those powerful and fragile planes deserved nothing less.
The funny thing was, it seemed that Harry was allergic to cherries, which amused Coleman Wilson no end. Hiring him as a picker made plain good sense. The local boys ate too damn many while they worked. Besides, Harry wasn’t afraid of heights and could pick all day at the very top of the narrow wooden ladders thrust up into the trees. Coleman was well aware of the off-color jokes about traveling men and farmer’s daughters and kept a sharp eye on them both from the driver’s seat of his Dodge flatbed truck as the overflowing bushels were loaded. By mid-day Barbara was on the front porch making change and handing off baskets of cherries to families waiting patiently. The Wilson family dog, Oscar, a tall and shaggy Russian Wolf Hound, gracefully accepted the attention of giddy children on the front lawn until he had enough, then simply bounded off into the orchard with the silent speed of an antelope.
Coleman Wilson was buried in the suit he had worn rain or shine since Barbara was a young girl. His wife Betty had not survived childbirth and most residents of Thunder Bay were of the opinion that Coleman had done a damn fine job raising Barbara himself. Eligible bachelors were scarce during the war and the arrival of Harry Martindale was considered a stroke of luck or an act of God, depending on whom you spoke to.
The post-war years brought a sharp increase in automobile production in Detroit. The factories were tooling up for new designs and the American dream of two cars in every garage was taking hold. Although Harry’s experience and skill with brake presses, shears and slip rollers put him in a select group of metal workers, he could summon no real enthusiasm for building sedans and station wagons. There had been a purity of purpose in the design of fighter planes and Harry missed that. Perhaps he would return to metal work someday, but when the war ended he needed a change. The idea that he would be picking cherries for his future father-in-law was the furthest thing from his mind and that fact amused everyone in town for quite some time. Harry and Barbara sold the orchard to a local fruit and produce cooperative seven years before Barbara’s passing. They kept a full acre surrounding the house for themselves along with a large vegetable garden where Barbara spent most days in good weather. Harry lacked a green thumb but sitting on the porch watching Barbara walk up to the house with a basket of lush, fresh vegetables, wearing a smile just for Harry, filled his heart with pride. Eventually, when the gardening became too taxing for Barbara, and to avoid the rich soil going fallow, they donated the plot to the 4-H Club’s Future Farmers of America. The kids had done a fine job, supplying area families with fresh corn, tomatoes, beans and melons. Harry had often watched them from his rocker on the porch. Even the little tykes pitched in, taking the occasional break to play with Terry and Edie.
Harry held his hands out, palms up, and examined his fingers. The tips still held a slight red stain from all those thousands of cherries. He pulled his cardigan tighter and let his chin drop to his chest. A short nap before bed seemed like a good idea. He was drifting off when Terry let out a single bark and scurried to the front door, his paws scratching in the grooves he had made years ago. Harry didn’t even bother to open his eyes.
“Settle down, Terry, it’s just the rain.”
If anything Terry became even more excited. Then Edie woke up and Harry heard a thump. Not loud, but definitely a thump, then another, on the outside of the front door. Edie joined Terry, jostling for position as Harry crossed the floor in his thick wool socks and slowly opened the door.
It was a small girl, barefoot, wet and shivering, blood smearing her face and arms. Harry and the dogs stared. The girl opened her mouth wide and howled like she was on fire, sending Terry and Edie scurrying down the hallway. It was a shock to Harry too but he had to do something. He leaned down to take her hands and carefully led her inside. Before he closed the door Harry looked into the darkness but saw nothing. No lights on the road or in the orchard. He heard no sirens, just the hiss of wind driven sleet. The girl stood sobbing and gulping air, her arms raised out to her sides, fingers splayed. The dogs crept slowly back in sniffing at her bare feet and tiny legs. She couldn’t be more than five or six years old, Harry thought, when suddenly he caught the long forgotten but familiar scents of Tetraethyl and Avgas, the heady mix of raw aircraft fuel. It rose up from the girl’s hair and skin. What on earth had happened to her? Harry took off his heavy flannel shirt and draped it over the girl’s shoulders and helped her onto the sofa. He was afraid to touch her, not knowing if she had any injuries he couldn’t see. She was still shivering and stared up at Harry like an injured bird, uncomprehending, but on full alert. Harry spoke as calmly as possible.
“I’m going to clean you up a little, is that okay?”
She didn’t answer, her attention now on the dogs, who had jumped onto the sofa one on each side of her. What had they used during the war to clean fuel from skin? Was it Crisco? Cosmoline? Why couldn’t he remember? Harry ducked into the kitchen, pulled an old galvanized pail from under the sink, and began to fill it with warm water. He could see the girl from the doorway and she was sitting still, slowly looking from Terry to Edie. Harry stepped quickly into the hall and opened the linen closet. Somewhere in there was the bottle of skin lotion that Barbara had used every night before bed. Maybe that would work. He found it behind a stack of bath towels, grabbed a washcloth and rushed back to the kitchen. The pail was almost full. He knelt before the girl not really knowing how to proceed. Harry had no experience with children, especially one that might be in shock. He squeezed some lotion onto the washcloth and dipped it into the warm water. It dripped onto the floor as he gently took the girl’s right hand and wiped her arm from elbow to wrist, hoping she wouldn’t pull away. If only Barbara were here to do this he thought! The girl allowed Harry to wipe down her other arm but when he brought the warm cloth toward her face she pushed his hand aside.
“I want my Mommy!”
Harry was lost. There was little more he could do but begin asking the girl questions. His mouth had become dry and his voice cracked.
“Can you tell me your name dear?”
She was breathing shallowly and rapidly but didn’t answer.
“Well, my name is Harry and the dogs are Terry and Edie.”
Her breathing slowed somewhat and Harry remembered the pot of soup on the stove.
“Would you like some soup?” Harry asked, hoping for any answer at all.
She might have nodded yes but Harry wasn’t sure, exhaustion seeming to fall over her like a blanket of fog. The dogs were behaving themselves much to Harry’s surprise. He ladled out a small bowl of soup with his eye on the girl. He placed the soup on his old foldout metal TV tray. If she began to eat, perhaps he could take the time to call the police who might know what had happened out there in the cold night. She finished the soup so quickly, wiping her mouth with the back of her tiny hand and watched Terry and Edie move in to lick the bowl. The dogs knew better but Harry let it go.
“Are you thirsty? Would you like some pop?”
This time she made eye contact with Harry and gave a tiny nod. He took a cold bottle of Vernor’s ginger ale from the fridge and pried off the cap. The girl took it in both hands. Harry shooed the dogs from the soup bowl, returned it to the kitchen and picked up the wall phone. As he dialed he watched her drain the entire bottle of pop.
“Thunder Bay Police.”
It was one of the Fletcher twins, both deputies, identical even over the phone. Harry lowered his voice and cupped the receiver for some privacy.
“Greg, this is Harry Martindale and I found a small girl outside my place just now and she’s all banged up.”
“This is Andy, not Greg.”
“Well, okay then Andy did you hear what I just said? This girl is hurt, must be about five years old, she has someone’s blood on her and aircraft fuel too.
“Yes sir, there was a small plane crash tonight in the woods near Grand Lake, a Cessna Skylane four-seater but the pilot and female passenger are both dead.
Harry wished to God that Barbara were there to help him.
“For Pete’s sake Andy, that crash was barely a mile from my place and this little girl was on that plane! She looks like she crawled all the way here.”
“Okay sir, I’ll call Kevin over to the hospital and send him out to your place.”
Harry hung up and took a deep breath, wondering if the Deputy twins shared half a brain each. The girl’s small hand was on Teddy’s back. He rolled over and offered his belly. Harry watched the girl and tried to recall any children visiting before but he couldn’t. Not even when Barbara was alive. Children had always tended to ignore Harry, perhaps because they sensed his discomfort in their presence. If only Barbara were there now! She would have loved to care for the girl. It was not for lack of trying, but Barbara and Harry had never been able to conceive. Their lovemaking over the years had become almost frantic, ending most nights with Barbara in tears and Harry holding her until she fell asleep. They had been one of the few childless couples in Thunder Bay but they always had each other. Now Harry had no one and life found a way to remind him of that nearly every day.
The empty bottle of pop rolled off the couch and hit the wide plank floor startling Harry back to the moment at hand. The girl’s head had lolled back against the pillows and her mouth went slack. Her limbs began to shake and her teeth chattered. Harry feared she was having a seizure and shoved the dogs away, wrapping his arms around her to hold her still. Where the hell was the ambulance? Harry couldn’t reach the phone and was afraid to let her go. He willed her to stop shaking and slowly, in tiny fits and tremors she did, falling completely limp within Harry’s embrace.
“Oh no, please!” Harry shouted out loud, panicked that she was dying. Her eyelids fluttered but didn’t fully open. Harry lifted her off the couch and began pacing the room, jiggling her as if she was an infant. Harry cried out, scaring the dogs now running in circles.
“Barbara, help me!”
The electronic wail of a siren grew closer. Harry laid the girl carefully on the sofa. Her eyes opened and she turned her head toward the door. Harry pulled it open and was blinded by four white headlights. In a moment Kevin, the local paramedic, was standing in the doorway dripping rainwater. Harry had forgotten how tall he was. Kevin reached into an oversized pocket in his hooded rain suit and came up with dog treats. Terry and Edie plopped to the floor and began devouring them right from Kevin’s huge hand. He set down his emergency kit and knelt before the girl.
“Hi, my name is Kevin. What’s your name?”
“Can I look at your arms and legs Carol and make you feel better?”
Harry felt slighted. Why couldn’t she tell him her name before?
Kevin had his bag open in an instant and began cleaning the scrapes on Carol’s feet.
He was calm, thorough and gentle. Harry watched Kevin expertly check the girl’s vitals, wash and bandage her cuts and abrasions one by one talking softly to her the whole time in a way that Harry was incapable of. She whimpered only once when the alcohol stung a cut on her upper arm. Kevin closed his medics bag and turned to Harry.
“Harry do you have anything dry Carol could wear?”
In Barbara’s bottom dresser drawer Harry found a Detroit Redwings t-shirt with Gordie Howe’s name across the shoulders that had been reduced to the softness of flannel from countless washings. After Kevin got Carol’s head and arms through, it fell down to her ankles. She looked like a cartoon character.
“Thank you Harry, you did great, I’ll take it from here.”
Kevin offered his hand to shake but Harry didn’t notice. He was searching the floor for his shoes.
“Let me get my shoes on and I’ll come to the hospital with you.”
“That’s okay Harry, the cousins that were supposed to meet the plane at Alpena airport are already there waiting.”
The rain and sleet had stopped and there was no wind to speak of. Harry followed Kevin as he carried Carol out to the ambulance and watched him wrap her into a blue blanket like an Indian papoose and strap her into the passenger seat.
“Are you sure you don’t need my help?” Harry asked.
“Nope, but thanks for being here Harry! She’s a lucky little girl.”
Lucky? Harry wondered. Mother and father both dead, her young life changed forever, where was the luck in that? Harry could barely see the top of Carol’s soft blonde curls as Kevin drove away. He wished he hadn’t let Kevin rush off without him. After all, the girl had come to Harry for a reason. He watched the revolving roof light flashing red and blue into the trees all the way to the Old French Road then disappear. No siren, just the wildly spinning lights.
Back inside the house, Terry and Edie were on the scent. Scampering mindlessly sniffing at everything. Harry stood between the sofa and the kitchen doorway, rooted to the spot, not knowing what to do next. He sat at his end of the couch and realized he was on the damp washcloth. He carried it to the laundry sink, adding it to the growing pile of things to be washed. Barbara would never have let the washing go for so long. It had been just one of life’s daily chores but now, for Harry, it had become a nearly overwhelming burden. He filled the dog’s kibble and water bowls, switched off the kitchen light, and slowly made his way upstairs.
Harry brushed his teeth and avoided looking in the bathroom mirror. If he were a drinking man he would have poured himself a double. After buttoning up his long johns he sat on the edge of the bed. Why had he been so clumsy with the girl? Her physical wounds would heal. He knew that, but what about the rest of her life? She had lost her mother and father in a sudden and horrible way. Would she end up in a foster home? Would Harry ever see her again? He had grown accustomed to being alone and until that night was certain that he needed no one. Certainly no one needed him. The few folks he knew in town were cordial, but the friends he and Barbara had were long gone, some to live with their adult children in another state, the others to the cemetery. He felt a quick, hot, prickling of shame for thinking he could somehow have cared for this wounded child. How many nights in the distant past had he knelt at this very bed, praying for the child that Barbara could never give him? Should he pray now, he asked himself. The answer was no. At least he could admit that much. Prayer brought nothing, changed nothing. His prayers didn’t stop Barbara’s pain or the wasting away of her graceful body. His prayers could not keep her from dying. The last time he touched his wife, her skin was cold and felt like clay. Perhaps this girl at the door, this tiny blonde Carol was a message. Harry laughed out loud at that ridiculous thought, but just as quickly wondered why not. He had no one but Terry and Edie. Harry suddenly remembered how old they were. Thirteen. How much longer did they have? He would not dwell on that. He pushed himself up from the bedside and opened the closet, moving aside the flannel shirts and khakis to lift out his old double-breasted wool suit. His hands trembled as he brushed a faint layer of dust from the shoulders. It smelled of lavender and mothballs but not too strongly. He hung it over the edge of the door to air out. In the morning he would iron a clean white shirt and select a tie. Sunday would dawn in a few hours. Being alone was no longer tolerable. Harry knew what he had to do. He would shave and comb his hair, button up the out of style Worsted suit and go to the hospital. Maybe he could stop at the Five and Dime and buy a small gift for Carol, a doll or a stuffed animal. Then if the weather was nice he would walk to Saint Mark’s church for the late morning service, the one Barbara used to like best.