What a lot of things we have to add to make our comfort, to make our work easier, to give more pleasure in life: electricity, motor-cars, telephones, motion pictures, better, cleaner and finer foods. Sanitation may always have been known, but it wasn't much practiced. The open bin whence coffee was scooped did not improve the flavor nor retain the aroma. Folgers Golden Gate coffee in flavor-tight tins shows the progress of the age in its demand for better foods.--Newspaper ad, 1916
The Germans have recently announced that the losses in the Prussian army
since the war began amount to upward of 2,235,000. That means that the military
forces of the German army have lost close to 4,000,000 out of the 8,500,000
troops they have put into the field. From this time on Germany's strength and
resources are bound to diminish by comparison with those of the allies, unless
the latter blunder even worse than they have already done.--National Editorial
Service, January 4, 1916
"You are a wet blanket, Doyle Lawrence. A wet blanket and a fake and I won't stay here a moment longer."
"All I said was it is disreputable. I didn't mean anything else by it."
Doyle hated the pleading tone in his voice. But Zee Miller always seemed to play him to just this point. She was infuriating.
He fought for vocal control."You can't argue with what I'm saying. It's irrefutable. It's logic."
"Oh, quit trying to sound like your father." Zee leaned her head back on the blanket, spread out on the green grass of Zenith Central Park. In the twilight Doyle saw the half smile of mockery on Zee's face--the smile that always both angered and captivated him.
At least she made no move to leave. That was a relief. Doyle never knew what Zee Miller was likely to do next. Which, he had to admit, was one reason he was smitten with her. Every other girl in town seemed ensnared in custom, like butterflies preserved in resin. They looked beautiful but no longer flew. Zee was the one girl who took wing. The only trouble was he never knew which direction she'd fly.
"You're not a lawyer yet," Zee said to the sky. Her burnished blond hair unfurled in a wild expanse. She wore it down whenever she was away from her father's gaze."Why can't you just speak from the heart?"
Doyle waved his hand, the way he'd seen his father do it a million times. It was a Lawrence trademark, a physical dismissal. Being one of the richest families in town bestowed upon them, at least according to the Lawrences themselves, a certain position of social authority.
"Piffle. The heart is for dreamers, not men of the world."
"Piffle yourself." Zee sat up, her slender sixteen-year-old figure showing the first blossomings of young womanhood in a way Doyle could not ignore. Zee wore her co-ed cardigan sweater unbuttoned, with a white lace shirtwaist underneath."I took first place in the dramatic readings last year, as a junior. And we competed with five other high schools. I will do it, I tell you, and if you try to talk me out of it again I won't speak to you anymore."
"But, Zee, moving pictures are frivolous things, a toy. A diversion. It's not anything that's going to contribute to society."
"And don't you think those are real people in them? Do you think Francis X. Bushman is a ghost? Mary Pickford? Lillian Gish?"
The smell of river birch trees wafted over them in the warm breeze. Nebraska was hot this time of year, especially in the southeast. The Zenith of 1916 was a growing metropolis situated smack-dab in the middle of a cluster of rural settlements representing various nationalities. To the south were the Germans, to the east the Hollanders, and the north was dominated by Swedes. The city was also in the rain belt of the Mississippi Valley, resulting in a moderately humid climate. But the June nights had been pleasant for the last week, prompting boys to ask girls out for strolls and picnics in the park by the river.
The band shell in the middle of the park stood sentry. Soon porch lamps would be lit and the town would put on its evening face. And Doyle Lawrence would still be mesmerized by Zenobia Miller.
"Haven't you heard of Intolerance?" Zee wrapped her arms around her knees.
"Yes," Doyle said."I'm against it."
"You can be flippant if you want to, but it is a work of art. A motion picture is a work of art! Can you get that into your legal mind? The movies are only going to get better and better. I am going to be part of that."
"You just want to kiss Francis X. Bushman."
"And unlike you, I'll bet he knows how to kiss."
Mocking him again! She was so good at it. No one could get his goat like Zee.
She kept her eyes, indigo and luminescent, locked on his. She turned her head up slightly. He knew it then--she wanted him to kiss her. Take her in his arms, put his mouth on hers. For a second he thought he might. But a boy didn't kiss a girl unless he intended to marry her. And, having never kissed a girl, he was not sure how.
He'd seen it done in the movies, yet it left questions unanswered. Should he keep his lips soft or tense them up? How long should he stay? Who should break away first?
Doyle told himself to stay calm. He could easily feel like a bee in a jar when he was around Zee. With an insouciant cock of his head, Doyle said,"Fast woman! Pretty soon you'll be cutting your hair and wearing rouge."
Zee did not back down."Don't think I won't. As soon as I can I'm going to Hollywood, and you'll see what happens."
"I know what happens to girls who go to the big city. You'll be dressed in rags and selling flowers before too long."
The next thing Doyle Lawrence felt was a hard fist to his shoulder. Zee had quite a punch. Always had, ever since they were kids. She was tougher than most of the boys, could run faster and climb better than any dozen of them.
"You're not just a fake," Zee said."You're hateful. Why don't you go and spread your applesauce somewhere else?"
"Zee, why must you be so difficult?"
"Why must you be so dull? Don't you ever just want to run away from this old town?"
"Sure. All the way to Omaha."
"That's just what I thought you'd say. That's what I'm going to call you from now on. Old Omaha. That's where you'll end up, you know. In some stuffy old office with a bunch of stuffy old lawyers."
"What's wrong with that? You against success or something?"
"Stupid! I'm against shutting yourself up to life." She got on her knees so she could spread her arms out wide."There's a world out there way beyond Omaha."
"I can think of worse things than living in Omaha."
"What about your poetry?"
For some reason, he'd known she would bring that up. Zee had what his mother had derisively called an"artistic temperament." He didn't have it, his mother told him, but he'd never quite believed it as an absolute. There was a bit of the poet in him.
Which made him something of a curiosity around the high school campus--a star athlete who wrote the occasional lines of verse. In truth, it was the one thing he did that wasn't expected of him, which was why he liked it.
"There's no money in poetry, silly," Doyle said.
"Must everything be for money?"
"Yes, or else it is frivolous."
"Is frivolous so bad?"
"Of course it is."
"I hate you, Doyle!"
And suddenly Zee Miller was on her feet, flying across the grass, leaving her shoes behind.
Her shadowy form darted, like a restless apparition, through the falling darkness. And for a moment Doyle Lawrence felt as if life itself were fleeing him, or a promise of life, and that if he didn't get it back it would be the saddest loss he'd ever suffer, even if he lived to be ninety.
He shot to his feet."Zee!"
The shadow disappeared.
He ran, almost desperately, after her.
"Where are you?" Doyle stumbled over a tree root. The indignity, as much as the stagger, made his face hot. In his lace-up Oxfords he felt like a clod, not the terror of the gridiron. Lightning Lawrence, as the Zenith High School Clarion called him, was now reduced to tottering lapdog.
Only silence, and the soft susurration of the river, returned. He circled the trunk of the tree that had ingloriously caused his stumble.
"This isn't funny!" Doyle shouted.
"Hark, I hear someone. Who could it be?"
The voice came from above.
Doyle looked up and saw two bare feet dangling from a tree limb. Even with Zee's athleticism, getting up in a tree that fast was an astonishment.
"Come on out of there, Zenobia Miller." He knew she hated being called by her full name.
"Sounds like the voice of a wet blanket. I didn't know wet blankets could talk."
Doyle removed his coat."You want me to come up there and get you down?"
"Do wet blankets climb trees?"
"Just watch me." Kicking off his shoes, leaving only his socks, Doyle hoped she'd see he was in earnest and call him off.
Instead, she giggled, and he saw her reach her arm up toward the sky. It was a gesture of such verve and confidence it froze Doyle in place. The audacity of it! She had no fear of falling, no fear of anything it seemed. Least of all his pursuit.
Electricity rushed through Doyle and he began to climb.
Still laughing, Zee pulled herself up to the higher limbs.
And Doyle Lawrence thought, I am climbing up a tree after a girl half the town thinks is crazy. What is wrong with me? If Father saw me now, he'd put me in a booby hatch!
"Give up, Doyle. You'll never catch me. Never."
"When I do, I'll break your neck."
"Oh, the big strong man." Her voice was like a siren's. It drove Doyle into a sudden, crazed frenzy of clutching at branches and kicking out for footholds. No girl was going to make a monkey out of him. Yet here he was climbing like one.
He started laughing. Whatever the consternation she caused, it was fun being with Zee. Then the branch he thought was in front of him was not.
Down he fell, reaching out, grabbing at anything, clutching nothing, something sharp hitting him in the ribs. He lost breath. He got his hand around a limb for a second, breaking what might have been a fall on the head. Instead he righted himself and landed on his right ankle. Searing pain coursed through his leg.
He rolled on the ground, half hurting and half indignant that he'd fallen right under the nose of Zee Miller.
She dropped out of the tree next to him, landing softly, like a cat."Doyle, are you hurt?"
"Thank you." He locked his jaw against the pain.
"That's what you get for calling me Zenobia. Come on, then." She reached down to help him up.
He smacked her hand away."I don't need your help." He kept silent as he got to his feet. He almost fell back down as the pain exploded afresh in his ankle.
Zee took his arm."You did get hurt!"
"I can walk." He pulled his arm away and went to fetch his coat and shoes. Each step was a new experience in agony. All those football games and never a broken bone. Now this! From chasing a girl who was mocking him!
"Just run along home," he said.
"Button your mouth, Omaha," she said, taking his arm again. This time he
"I'm going to marry her, Rusty."
The Lawrence brothers shared a bedroom, even though there was no need. Two other rooms in the house would have done nicely for either of them, but Russell Lawrence had always wanted to be near Doyle, ever since he was a child. Three years younger than his brother, Rusty could sometimes be a nuisance. But Doyle liked having him around. Rusty was funny and smart beyond his years, almost like one of Doyle's own high school friends.
They often talked in the darkness, their hands laced behind their heads, gazing out the large second-story window that looked down on Cherry Street. Many a time they'd played ball in that street. Football, baseball, even basketball with a knotty oak limb substituting for the goal.
"C'mon," Rusty said."Not that strudel."
"You shut up with that talk or I'll give you a knuckle shampoo."
"That's what they say about her."
Doyle rolled over on his side and propped his head on his hand."Listen to me, Rusty. People talk all the time, and most of the time they're stupid about it. They don't know Zee like I do. I'll admit she's a little different."
"She has a loose fitting." Rusty tapped his head with his index finger.
"She just sees things differently than most. That's not crazy."
"Seems like it."
"Some of the most famous people in the world were thought to be crazy. Old Tom Edison, they thought he was crazy. And look what we've got. Lights and phonographs and movies and all kinds of things. And Alexander Graham Bell. Nobody thought you could talk to somebody clear across the country through a wire. Now we can't keep quiet."
"So what's Zee Miller gonna invent?"
"It doesn't have to be an invention. It can just be the way you see things."
"I don't get it, Doyle."
"It's like this. You know those poems I write?"
"Sure. I like 'em."
"You and about two other people. But I don't write them for other people. I write them for me. It makes me feel like I've got something all to myself. I don't know if they're any good, but they're mine. Most folks would probably think I've got a loose fitting if they saw them. They're about oceans and places I haven't even seen yet."
"I like the ones that don't rhyme."
"You like those?"
Doyle smiled, feeling good about that. He especially loved free verse. Like Walt Whitman. He had an edition of Leaves of Grass with Whitman's signature in it.
"Does Zee Miller write poetry?"
"Zee wants to be an actress," Doyle said.
"An actress! Dad's not going to be happy about that."
"Dad's got nothing to say about it."
"Hey, you can't be serious. You can't go against Dad on something like that." Rusty's voice was full of the respectful fear the two boys had for their father.
"I'm almost eighteen, Rusty, and I'm going off to college. I've got to start standing on my own two feet."
"Are you in love with her, then?"
Funny, but the idea of love--the love described by the poets and the dime novels--had not really crossed Doyle's mind. It was more like a compulsion. A feeling that he and Zee Miller had been created for each other, and there was just no getting around the fact.
"You're too young to be asking about love," Doyle said, ducking the question.
"Says you. But what's Betty gonna say?"
Betty was Elizabeth Warren, daughter of the most prominent doctor in town, and everyone sort of understood she and Doyle were going to get engaged. Everyone but Doyle. He liked Betty, all right. She was beautiful to be sure, the best-looking girl in Nebraska maybe. He had taken her to the school dance two years in a row, and that got the tongues wagging. But there was something missing in her. She didn't like poetry, for one thing.
"Betty's a good kid; she won't have any problems."
"Sid Cromwell says she told his sister that you as much as said you'd give her a ring this summer."
"So when are you going to do it?"
Doyle got gooseflesh at the prospect. Yes, he'd actually have to ask her if he wanted to marry her. She wasn't just going to waltz up to him and offer herself. But what if she should say no? He'd be humiliated. The whole town would probably find out that he'd made a fool of himself over Zee Miller.
But she couldn't say no. She wouldn't. Somehow, some way, they were meant to