Episode Twenty-four ♦ Mary’s Advice

“I don’t know who Sid and Mary are,” Anita told George after visiting the church. George bought a set of Twain’s most popular works from their shop. Even with such flimsy covers and poor quality paper, they made a good addition to the small library Catherine had given him when they left the UGO bunker. It took three nights for Anita to put down her sewing and start The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

“Okay, I’m starting to figure out who some of these people are,” Anita said. “I mentioned the girl I see on the porch as I go to church – blond curls, white dress and pantalettes.”

“Yes,” he answered, eyes holding his spot in Lewis and Clark among the Indians.

“She must be Becky Thatcher. Sid and Mary are related to the main guy, Tom Sawyer. He’s the only name I remember hearing.” She gave three quick nods. “Okay, now I think I have a better idea who I’m looking for. I’ll just go up to them after the show tomorrow.”

George marked his place in the book with a finger and made eye contact. “Not a good idea. Remember. ‘Beware of hucksters’.”

“But what exactly does that mean?” Her eyebrows pinched together and the corners of her mouth drew sharply back.

“Not sure. Has a couple meanings. Huck is a character in the books.”

“Huckleberry Finn, right?”

“Yes. He’s an untamed scamp. Not bad, but not a good boy either. Maybe we need to beware of him.”

“But hucksters are sellers...”

George nodded. “True. Use caution when shopping.”

♦ ♦ ♦

While George was thankful for the meals Anita brought back from the commissary during the day, he enjoyed closing the shop at night and joining her for supper. The staff dining hall reminded him of the one in his building back in Roseville; though in Hannibal the room lacked a wall of formatters. Here food was served from large metal pans resting in hot water. They were able to select from three different main dishes, vegetables and salads, bread and grains, dessert, and beverages. At the end of the food line, the cost of dinner was deducted from the chip in his sunglasses. George still had a tidy sum of 2,163 Confederation credits.

Another difference from home was the long tables and benches which ran perpendicular to the room’s longest axis, dividing the buffet from an array of smaller tables with chairs. Tonight the tables with chairs were taken so George said to Anita, “Will this work?” He stood at the end of a long table, well occupied by other workers, but with just enough room for them to squeeze onto the end of a bench.

She shook her head and said, “Looks empty over there,” and continued down the aisle. Midway down a table, a young man dressed in ragged clothing and with a greasy mess of dirty blond hair, ate alone. They sat at the end.

George snatched a piece of fried chicken from his plate and started eating. Once all traces of meat disappeared from the leg bone he said, “So, any luck finding them?”

Using her fork, she poked at the flaccid pieces of broccoli that covered her plate, a piece of cornbread on the side. “Well, Sid and Mary were there, but played by different people today.” She leaned over the table and said, “And no daisies.”

“Maybe Sunday? We can close the store. I’ll join you. Traditionalists go to church on Sunday.” George picked up his fork and pierced a broccoli crown.

Anita swallowed a mouthful of cornbread. “So, are you sure you don’t want me to cover some of your time tomorrow so you can explore? There’s all sorts of things going on. And I know you want to spend some time in the library. Our stay might be short…”

“That’s right! So much to do.” He pulled a strip of meat off the breast. “I like the store. It’s fun. Kids get so excited.”

“Well, as long as you’re enjoying it, but let me know if you want to get out.” She chewed a piece of broccoli.

“Sure. Wish we knew how long…”

“I’m on my own, do you mind if I join you?” the stranger said. His clothing was tattered and he’d been made up to look dirty.

George struggled to understand the minimal upward movement of Anita’s shoulders and raised eyebrows. He glanced left and right, wanting to suggest another couple to annoy, but said, “No. Help yourself.”

“I’m Huck. Sorry, overheard you’re looking for someone. Friends maybe?”

George grunted, only wanting to acknowledge a question had been asked, feeling a twinge in his gut, remembering the warning, “Beware of Hucksters.”

“Well, from the sounds of it, you’re shop keepers. You might not know that those of us playing roles switch. So, for example, there’s got to be twenty-some guys playing Huck and we can share some spots, you know, to keep it interesting. When a choicer spot opens, people move around. Actually, it’s the same thing with shops – you can ask for a different one if you want and it’s open.”

“That’s nice to know,” Anita said, glancing towards Huck and then looking at her plate.

“Where’re y’all from?”

“Hartford,” George said. “You?”

“A free settlement outside Charlotte called Mount Holly.”

“Never been.” George pulled more chicken off the bones and ate. “Nice there?”

“It’s hilly. Green. Warm. People are friendly.” Huck picked up his knife and fork and cut away a piece of roast beef. He chewed it noisily.

George grimaced, noticing his own foot twitching.

Huck picked up some mashed potatoes. “I take it you’re a couple. Married?”

George looked at his plate.

“Honey, this isn’t sitting very well tonight. Would you take me back?” Anita asked.

Snatching up her plate and silver, George scraped the remaining food onto his plate and said, “Please excuse us. She’s not been well.” He shuffled Anita’s plate and tray under his own, picking up the lot as he stood. “Nice meeting you.”

Following Anita towards the door, George set their dinner service on a black conveyor belt which whisked the trays from view. Three quick steps caught him up to Anita as she scurried out of the room and into the underground passage.

“Want to walk? Get a handicart?” George asked.

“I’m fine. He just made me nervous. All those questions.” Anita smiled.

Returning the smile, George reached for her hand and said, “I know. He was too into his role. Chewing with his mouth open.”

“Kinda like Willem when he was acting, could never really shed the character at home.”

“Yes. Remember when he played Stanley Kowalski?” he asked.

“Stella!” they called out together and broke into laughter.

♦ ♦ ♦

Sitting in the church, women fanning themselves against the muggy heat, the performance baffled Anita. Judge Thatcher had just presented Tom Sawyer with a Bible. She knew of the book, remembered great wars were fought in its name, but didn’t fathom the meaning of the scene as it played out.

The Sunday school leader said, “Answer the gentleman, Thomas—don't be afraid.” Then a woman coaxed, “The names of the first two disciples were…”

The young man playing Tom Sawyer rocked from heels to toes and said, “David and Goliath!”

Cast members, seated in the front rows, either gasped or laughed, women hunting hankies to dab cheek or brow. The audience clapped and for a moment it seemed like the show had finished as the actors returned to their seats. But another man, dressed in black, approached the podium, quieted the crowd, and led the cast in song.

Shall I be carried to the skies,
On flowery beds of ease,
Whilst others fight to win the prize,
And sail through bloody seas?

The whole thing was odd. She used the song as cover to whisper in George’s ear. “See the daisies? The other day the young woman sitting next to Tom Sawyer brought the flowers. She’s Mary, right?”

George nodded. “After it’s done.”

The song ended and the man dressed in black said, “Let us pray.”

Anita watched as the costume wearers lowered their heads. She looked to her left and right, seeing most of the room doing the same, she looked at her lap.

“Today, oh Lord, protect us from the evil in the world. Protect these fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, from the evil in the world. Protect us all from the Islamic League as our glorious confederation punishes Bamako, Kabul, Pekanbaru, and Sanaa. Your wrath is just, for many are suffering in Indianapolis. Protect our cities from future attacks as Khartoum and Sylhet feel our righteous anger…”

 The world closed in. She thought back to the riverboat and George mentioning the promised bombing of ten Islamic League cities in retaliation for the attack at Indianapolis Station. Her hands were cold and she rubbed them together, hoping it was a play, fearing it was real; the audience in rapt, reverential silence. Cold advanced up her arms and legs until ice gripped her heart. It was starting again. Another great and terrible war. She wanted to jump from her seat and scream NO! but could only shiver at the cold.

♦ ♦ ♦

George hesitated to leave Anita sitting alone. She was trembling despite the heat. The talk of bombing was too terrible – he knew the League would target more Confederation citizens. Any distraction was welcome. He looked at the young woman rearranging the flowers under the rostrum, then at Anita. “Do you…” but she shook her head violently and looked away. “I’ll just be a moment,” he said and stood.

At the head of the aisle George passed a mix of people, some in costume and others in everyday clothing, talking with the preacher. A man wearing a Chattanooga Charlies airball jersey said, “I’m unable to believe in an all-powerful eternal being but I still found your words comforting.” A high-pitched voice hidden by a sun bonnet added, “Thank your for your thoughts. God’s will be done.” George continued towards the podium.

He took the stem of a daisy between his fingers, twirled it, and said, “You bring the flowers? They’re beautiful.”

“Thank you sir.” The young woman took the sides of her dress between her fingers, looked at the floor, and gave a brief curtsey. She had a tatted daisy pinned to her pinafore.

Emboldened, George made eye contact. “We want to go west. Do you know any guides?”

“I am afraid I do not sir. But I am told trade beads are always useful.” Another quick curtsey, her body lowering six or seven centimeters. “If you will excuse me sir.” She walked up to Sid, took him by the hand, and when alone in the middle of the hall whispered in his ear. They joined their aunt at the street door where she chatted with other townswomen.

Anita met him in the aisle. “So?”

He sighed then drew his left hand to his forehead, rubbing it, fearing this news would add to her upset, but knowing he had to be truthful. “Asked about a guide. Didn’t know a thing. Said, ‘trade beads are always useful.’ I know what you’re thinking. She’s the right Mary. Had a daisy on her pinafore.”

♦ ♦ ♦