I was advised and encouraged to add to the website some part of the novel, WARD OF THE STATE, and after some careful consideration, I concluded that the best thing to do is to present you with the beginning of the story.
This then is Chapter 1 of WARD OF THE STATE.
The afternoon sun shown brightly as twelve year old Tom Packard descended the front steps of the public library in Roundup, Montana. At that moment, a boy, taller and older than Tom, approached. “You Tom Packard?” he asked.
Tom turned cautiously to give the boy a three-quarter view of his body. “Yes, I am,” he said.
Noticing the one inch scar near Tom’s left eye and Tom’s posture and the wary look in Tom’s eyes, the boy held up his hands. “I’m not looking for trouble. I just want to apologize.”
Tom relaxed a bit. “Why? What’d you do?”
“I didn’t do nothing. It was my little cousin.”
Tom let out a sigh and nodding slowly said, “So that’s who he was. Well, you don’t owe me an apology; your cousin does.”
“Look, I’m just trying to smooth things over here. I mean … aw, he’ll grow out of it. I just want to tell you that I’m sorry that he bothered you.”
“He may not grow out of it,” Tom said. “My aunt says that little bullies grow up to be big bullies.”
“Well, he’s got problems you see. About six months ago his dad got killed by the japs and my aunt couldn’t make him behave anymore so she sent him to live with us, so you see, he’s got problems.”
An expression of empathy filled Tom’s face. “I can symphatize with that, but that doesn’t make what he did all right. My aunt says that what your little cousin did is called ‘assault and battery,’ and that’s a crime, and a guy should go to jail for it. So tell him that he should think twice before he starts pushing guys around.”
The boy nodded enthusiastically. “Well, I think you taught him a lesson already. You broke out his front tooth.”
Tom’s eyebrows rose quickly. “Yeah! Well, some guys never seem to get the message.”
“Well, anyway I just wanted to tell you I’m sorry.”
“You tell your cousin to come and apologize for himself,” Tom said as he took his bicycle from the bicycle rack. “The next time he tries that crap, I may just break out his other tooth.”
Tom Packard arrived home and looked into the open door to his aunt’s room.
Elizabeth Robins was lying on her bed. Her eyes were closed, and, lying on her chest, was her opened photograph album.
Tom decided to let his aunt sleep, and, out of boredom, he decided to do his chores early. He took out the garbage and burned some old newspapers in the trash burner out back near the back yard gate.
When Tom came into the house, he entered through the door to the next kitchen. He noticed the unwashed dishes in the sink and was curious about this because Aunt Elizabeth never allowed unwashed dishes to gather in the sink.
He washed the dishes and put a pot of water on for tea. He thought that she might like some tea when she awoke.
While he waited for the pot to boil, he went to his room and listened to the radio a while. In the middle of ‘The Lone Ranger’ he heard the kettle whistle, and he went into the kitchen to turn off the stove. When returning to his room he looked into his aunt’s room and saw that she was still sleeping, so he decided to let her sleep a while longer.
He listened to ‘Lum and Abner’ and ‘Jack Armstrong,’ and when it became very late and Aunt Elizabeth had not yet awakened, he decided to wake her.
He knocked on the open door and called to her. When she didn’t respond, he entered her room and approached her bed. He tried to wake her and discovered that she was dead.
Tom sat, devastated, on a nearby chair, weeping softly for a long, long time. Then he wiped his eyes on his sleeves and went to the telephone, and, not knowing whom to call, he called the sheriff’s office.
While waiting for the sheriff, Tom returned to his aunt’s bedroom and after studying her a moment, he noticed the tears that had wormed their way down her temples, and he assumed that just before her demise, she had been crying over some memory that had been evoked from the pages of her photograph album.
Tom carefully lifted the album from her chest and turned it over and saw an eight inch by ten inch photograph of a young naval officer standing by a biplane.
Tom recalled her remarks about the young man she had cared about who had met with an accident. Tom assumed that the flyer had crashed his airplane and died. This, then, was to be her legacy, he thought, some old photographs and some broken down memories.
He remembered the photograph of his parents and he searched the pages for the photograph. When he found it, he removed it from the page and placed it in his shirt pocket. He rationalized that Aunt Elizabeth had no further need for it now.
As he turned the pages to close the album he saw a newspaper story about Dixie La Hood and a huge photograph of Dixie with his hair parted in the middle of his head, a dominant style of the 30s, and it sparked his memory of the weekend his aunt had showed him how to box to protect himself from a bully, and he wondered just how close his aunt had been with the boxer.
Just some broken down memories, he thought again. Then he closed the album and returned it to its box on the top shelf in the closet.
While he was standing on the stool, he noticed a smaller box. He brought it down from the shelf, placed it on the table and removed the lid.
Inside the box he found a number of books. He removed one, opened it, and glanced through the pages and discovered that they were journals. Aunt Elizabeth had been keeping journals over the years.
Tom thought he could learn something about his parents, if his aunt had mentioned them in her journals.
He sat at the table and began to read Aunt Elizabeth’s first journal. He scanned the entries of her experiences and observations during her years in high school, the entries about her boxing experiences at the gymnasium in Butte, and the remarks she entered during her first year at the university, and of her relationship with her young naval flyer.
The last entry in that journal read:
February 3, 1927. Today is a bleak day. The temperature is below zero, there are gray ugly clouds in the sky, from my dormitory window, I can see that the snow is blowing and forming drifts against the sides of the buildings. Today is quite bleak and ugly, but what makes it even more bleak and ugly is the fact that my dear sweet Robert is gone, and I am in despair. All our hopes and dreams are never to be. Death ends everything.
As Tom finished reading that passage, he heard a knock at the front door. He opened the front door and an excited deputy sheriff pushed his way past Tom into the front room. “Where is she?”
“In her bedroom,” Tom said, pointing to the open door of his aunt’s bedroom.
The medical examiner entered the house and the deputy and the medical examiner went into the bedroom and closed the door, and Tom removed the second of Aunt Elizabeth’s journals. He scanned the pages quickly for entries about his mother.
One entry read:
October 1, 1928- Martha is attending the university now, and I am in my second year. We haven’t had much contact since she matriculated in September, because I have a very busy schedule, but from what I can understand, I don’t think that Martha is going to do too well in college. She seems to have the same problem she had when she was in high school.
In high school Martha remained basically uneducated for the duration because of her poor study habits and her obsession with the boys. And her personality also gets in her way. She tries to control everything and everyone around her, a very annoying personality trait, really. She is my sister and I do love her, but I don’t really like her very much.
In high school I associated with a group of people who had lively and enjoyable debates about a variety of issues, but when Martha entered our group, the members of the group would quickly disperse, because Martha didn’t know the rules.
I tried to educate her about the rules of discussing things to no avail. I tried to drum into her head that when people have a disagreement or are about to tell some one something that may cause them distress one should always be polite and preface their remarks with the phrase, ‘With all due respect,’ yet Martha doesn’t seem to understand. She thinks her opinions are the only opinions anyone has a right to have, and she will not accept disagreement. If someone disagrees with her, she interrupts without giving the person a chance to finish the reasons for disagreeing, and then she repeats what she said, a little louder and a little slower, and she enunciates each word as though she were speaking to a person who was deaf or could not understand the language with which they are trying to communicate.
Sometimes, if someone continues to disagree with her, she will pound on a table as she repeats her opinions. It is frustrating and embarrassing to watch her. I thought that she would eventually understand what I was trying so desperately to explain to her and that she would change when she came to college, but she hasn’t changed, and I understand that her grades, except for Psychology 101, are low.
Another entry read:
February 2, 1928- Tonight I visited Florence in her room down the hall and she and some of her friends were discussing the economic situation and the upcoming election with a number of old friends when in walked Martha.
Apparently Martha knew Florence’s roommate and simply decided to drop in.
At that time, Florence was pointing out to the others how ridiculous it was that France, who owed the United States billions of dollars for war loans during the World War, was getting the money, to pay the United States, from Germany who owed France war reparations, while Germany was borrowing the money to pay France from the United States. A silly circular little merry-go-round game with money.
We all found it very amusing, except Martha, of course, who was bored and didn’t bother to try to fathom what the discussion was all about.
Martha, of course, butted in with the remark, ‘Why doesn’t anyone talk about what I want to talk about?’ and Florence looked at Martha and said, ‘Yes, why don’t we talk about how pretty you are and which gentleman is paying you court this term?’
Martha looked as though she had been struck on the head with a hammer. She left in a huff leaving me highly embarrassed.
Another entry read:
June 1, 1928- Florence and I have made a pact with our new landlady. We met a student who is graduating this term and is leaving Missoula. We reasoned that it is more expensive to live in the dorms than to live in an apartment downtown, so we met with his landlady and guaranteed her that we would stay in the apartment until we graduated. Actually Florence plans to take graduate studies so she will remain long after I have gone. In any event the landlady reduced the rent for us because she was grateful that she will not have to face the problem of finding new renters at the end of each year or each term.
Both Florence and I have found full time employment, the working hours of which can be scheduled around our class schedules when the fall term begins in September.
I tried to persuade Martha to move in with us and find employment but she declined partly because she doesn’t like Florence and partly because she is going to manipulate Father into buying her a new automobile. She says that the economy is good and Father can afford it, so she went home for summer vacation.
Florence has studied the depressions of the late 1800s and she is skeptical about the economy. She has a premonition that a severe economic disaster is about to occur.
Another entry read:
June 25, 1928- Received a letter from Father. He bought Martha a used automobile.
Martha convinced Father that she would settle down and do better next year. College courses are more difficult than the courses one studies at the high school level, and I guess she barely squeeked by this year. She took Remedial English twice and she received a D in her biology class, but she received a B in Psychology 101 and Cs in the remainder of her classes which brought her overall grade point average to C.
Father doesn’t like the fact that I am friends with Florence. I imagine Martha gave Father an ear full.
The remainder of his letter dwells on my investing my savings, but I am hesitant.
Another entry read:
July 3, 1928- Florence told me that she thinks she saw Martha driving down Higgins Avenue. A male passenger was in the automobile with her. Florence couldn’t recognize the passenger.
I wonder why Martha didn’t bother to visit us while she was here. Perhaps Florence was mistaken or perhaps it is because Martha doesn’t like Florence. I know Florence would bombard Martha with her concerns about the economy and her views on the upcoming election between Hoover and Smith.
Florence thinks Smith would make a good president, but she feels that the country won’t want a Catholic president at this time, and I am certain that Martha would find it a very boring subject.
The deputy came out of Aunt Elizabeth’s room and sat down across the table from Tom. He removed a small notebook from his pocket and began to write in it. “Name: Thomas Packard,” he muttered as he wrote. “That’s your name isn’t it? Not Robins?”
Tom nodded. “That’s right.”
“Date: June twenty-nine, 1943.” The deputy looked up at Tom. “Where was you all day?”
Tom closed the journal. “At the library.”
“Did anyone see you there?”
“Sure. Myrtle, the librarian, was there. And when I came out there was a guy outside waiting for me. Why?”
All the time the deputy kept writing in his small notebook. “A guy?”
“A guy about my age.”
“Who was he? What’s his name?”
Tom shrugged. “I don’t know. Just some guy.”
“What time did you leave? The library, I mean.”
“I guess about four … four thirty.”
“Which was it? Four or four thirty?”
“I can’t be sure,” Tom said. “Why all the questions?”
“I’ll ask the questions here,” the deputy said angrily, looking up at Tom with narrowed eyelids. “When did you get home?”
“About fifteen minutes later, but I don’t know the exact time.”
“What did you do then?”
“You mean, when I got home?”
“Yes! Yes! What did you do?”
“I did my chores.”
The deputy became impatient. “Look … son … you did something to your aunt didn’t you?”
“What do you mean? Did what?”
“Well … you know … maybe she had some life insurance … and … your aunt … well … or maybe you were mad at your aunt, and …”
“What are you talking about?” Tom interrupted.
“Well, when I see discrepancies, a red flag pops up…”
“What red flag? What discrepancies?”
“Well … you know … when a young healthy woman dies suddenly, I get suspicious. Look … son … you can trust me. I’m your friend. You can tell me all about it. You can tell me what you done.”
“What are you talking about?”
Just then the medical examiner came out of Elizabeth Robins’ bedroom. “Where’s your bathroom?”
Tom pointed at an open door. “In there.”
The medical examiner went into the bathroom, turned on the light and began rummaging through the medicine cabinet.
The deputy turned to Tom again. “Look, son, you gotta get this thing off your chest. It’ll make you feel much, much better.”
Tom shrugged and was about to speak when the medical examiner returned, holding some vials of medical prescriptions. “Do you take any medication?”
“No,” Tom said shaking his head. “That stuff’s Aunt Elizabeth’s stuff. She also took some iodine in a glass of water.”
“Iodine!” the deputy blurted out. “How do you know that?”
“I saw her,” Tom said. “When I saw the skull and cross bones on the bottle, I became worried, and I asked her about it, and she told me that the doctor told her to do it and that it was all right. I was still worried about it, though.”
“Why would anyone do a stupid thing like that?” the deputy said. “Iodine is poisonous.”
“For her thyroid,” the medical examiner said with annoyance. “I guess I misspoke about my suspicions. I can see now that her heart must have just simply stopped … perhaps in her sleep. She was taking a nap?” the doctor asked Tom.
“She looked like she was sleeping when I came home.”
The medical examiner looked at the writing on the medicine vials. “I guess she was one very sick lady after all. I won’t really know until I check with her doctor, so I guess that answers all my questions for now.” He looked at the deputy sheriff. “How about you?”
The deputy stood up. He appeared to be embarrassed. “Well … I gotta know who and where her relatives are.” He looked down at Tom.
“My grandfather lives in Butte,” Tom said. “His name’s Orville Robins.”
The deputy started writing in his note book again. “Telephone number? Address? Any other relatives?”
“I don’t know his address or telephone number, and I’m his only living relative.”
The deputy wrote that information into his notebook and looked at the medical examiner. “I got no more questions. I guess we should get her to a mortuary as soon as we can, but I have to make some phone calls first. And then tomorrow someone from the court will have to come here to look through her effects and inventory them and see if she left a will or anything like that.”
The deputy began telephoning while the medical examiner went out to his vehicle to get a gurney.
The medical examiner returned with the gurney, as the deputy completed his telephone calls. Then the deputy and the medical examiner returned to Aunt Elizabeth’s bedroom and closed the door.
Tom continued to read the journals. The entries changed subject matter then, so Tom quickly scanned the pages to find additional entries about his mother.
The next entry that he found read:
September 30, 1929- This was to be Martha’s second year, but she has surprised everyone and married a university professor. Then she stopped attending school.
Her withdrawal from school upset Arthur very much—
Tom recalled his aunt’s remarks about his father working on the railroad, and realized that his mother had been married once before she met and married his father. As his mind absorbed this, he heard a knock on the door.
Tom opened the door and saw a tall woman wearing a long overcoat, the front being open, exposing a bright print dress. Her face was long with pronounced cheekbones and sunken cheeks. Her nose was long with a knobby tip and to emphasize her unattractiveness, her eyebrows were bushy and unkempt. She had covered her hair with a scarf, but Tom could see that she had brown hair and he noticed that she had a strange scent about her that he could not recognize. In her right hand, she carried a brief case.
“Thomas Packard?” she asked.
Tom nodded. “Yes.”
“I’m Miss Maryanne Whittaker,” she said. “The deputy phoned me about your situation. I’m from the Department of Social Services and I have been sent to fetch you. You’ll have to come with me.”
Tom nodded. He realized that, with the death of his aunt, life, as he had known it, had come to an abrupt end. His support system was gone, and he was now at the mercy of Miss Whittaker and the social service bureaucracy.
The deputy and the medical examiner came out of the bedroom. They had concluded their investigation. Aunt Elizabeth’s body was strapped to the gurney. The medical examiner removed Aunt Elizabeth’s body to his van, while the deputy remained behind.
“You need any help?” the deputy asked Miss Whittaker.
“We’ll be fine,” she said.
“Miss Robins’ father lives in Butte,” the deputy said. “The sheriff’ll get in touch with him tonight to tell him the sad news. I’ll get in touch with you sometime after that. I have to leave right now so you can give me the keys to the house later.” The deputy shook Miss Whittaker’s hand and departed.
Miss Whittaker turned to Tom. “I need you to go and pack your things. We haven’t the luxury of space, so we can only take our toiletry items and a couple of changes of clothing.”
“Could I take these journals with me?” Tom asked. “I would like to finish reading them.”
Miss Whittaker picked up the journal that Tom had been reading, opened it, and scanned the pages. “These journals are the property of your aunt’s estate,” she said. “It would be wrong for me to allow you to take something from your aunt’s estate.”
“Yes. Now that your aunt has passed on, everything in this house belongs to your aunt’s estate.”
“But some of these things … bicycle … baseball mitt … roller skates … some of these things are mine. I bought them with money I earned myself. And some of them were my Christmas and birthday presents.”
“I’m sorry, but legally all the things in this house will have to be sorted out by the executor … that is … the administrator of your aunt’s estate. Whoever that will be will determine who the things in her estate belong to.” Miss Whittaker put the journal into the box and put the lid on the box.
“What happens now? You gonna find my dad now?”
“My primary concern is to locate you in a safe place,” Miss Whittaker said, holding out her hand, palm up. “Do you have keys to the house and garage?”
“I need them to secure the house,” she said, still extending her arm.
Tom searched his pockets, found the key to the house and put the key in the palm of Miss Whittaker’s hand. “I don’t have a key to the garage.”
Miss Whittaker nodded. “You go pack your clothing and … not everything … just a couple of pairs of trousers, shirts, underwear, socks, toiletry articles. I’ll see to it that all the doors and windows are closed and locked.”
“How about my dad …”
“He probably was killed in the war.”
“I don’t believe that and neither did my aunt,” Tom blurted out.
“Sit down,” Miss Whittaker said as she sat down at the table. Tom sat down and looked across the table at her.
“The sheriff told me about your aunt coming to visit him requesting advice about locating your father. I understand that she visited him many times. He finally managed to convince her that his jurisdiction was only within the county and that the whereabouts of your father was simply beyond his jurisdiction. After that your aunt went to the police department and the police explained to her that the jurisdiction of the police department was only to the city limits—even smaller than that of the sheriff’s department. I can imagine her disappointment.”
“She never told me about this,” Tom said.
“Perhaps she didn’t want you to know what a difficult task locating your father was going to be.”
“Perhaps,” Tom said, the corners of his mouth turning down.
“Now I suppose we should go.”
“Miss Whittaker, can YOU find my dad?”
“No,” she said. “As I said before, my primary duty is to see that you are located in a safe place, so please go and pack.”
Miss Whittaker rose from her chair and turned to enter the kitchen. Tom quickly lifted the lid of the box that held the journals. He left the journals he had previously read and removed the journals he had not yet read, and when he saw a packet of letters, tied with a ribbon, he removed them also. Then he replaced the lid of the box and went to his room where he found a large cardboard box.
He put the box on his bed and put the journals and the letters and his dress shoes on the bottom. On top of that he put two pairs of trousers, then on top of that, four pairs of shorts and T-shirts. On top of that he put two of his best-liked shirts. Then on top of that he put a lot of pairs of rolled up socks, and on the very top he placed his toothbrush in its container, toothpaste, his comb and brush set, and his two harmonicas.
He was searching the closet for a rope with which to secure the box when Miss Whittaker entered the room.
Miss Whittaker went to the windows and inspected them. Then she pushed down on the lower jams to ensure they were closed tightly as she twisted the latch at the top, locking each window. Then she turned to face Tom.
By this time Tom had bound the box and was holding it in his arms.
“You don’t have a suitcase?” Miss Whittaker asked.
“We never went anywhere, so I never needed one.”
Miss Whittaker paused a moment to let her mind absorb this fact. Then she nodded as she said, “Well … whatever. I guess we should go.”
“How about my grandfather in Butte?”
“What about him?”
“If you won’t find my dad maybe I could go to live with my grandfather in Butte?”
By this time they were at the front door. Miss Whittaker opened the door and motioned for Tom to exit.
“We’ll see,” she said. She turned, looked around the room, turned off the light, and walked onto the porch. Then she closed and locked the front door.