Husband and Father, Deceased
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~
Finis Satterfield and Cora Tutwiler were married by the Methodist minister on the first day of June in the year of our Lord 1900. He was twenty-nine and she was twenty-three. Ten months later, in April of 1901, their first child was born, a girl named Grace. When Grace was three years old, a boy named Christian was born. Christian, however, was not long for this world. He died of a hemorrhage when he was five days old and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Methodist cemetery. (His grave was unmarked because his father didn’t have the money to pay for a gravestone.) In 1907, three years after Christian, Frank was born, named after an uncle of Cora’s who died of malarial fever contracted in the Spanish-American War. There would be no more children after Frank.
Finis wasn’t stupid, but he hadn’t prepared in his early years for taking care of a family. He discovered right away how much more difficult his life was than it would have been if he hadn’t married. He worked as a sales clerk and suit-fitter in the only clothing store in town but, with the country awash in hard times, the store closed down and its five employees were let go. He then worked in a shoe factory, a hardware store and a grocery, but none of these jobs lasted. They just didn’t seem suited, somehow, to his talents. Cora’s family, seeing his difficulty in keeping a job, were confirmed in their suspicions that he had never quite grown up and wasn’t a suitable husband.
From the beginning, Finis found married life dull and predictable. He liked Cora well enough, but she was uninspiring and didn’t compare well with other women he had known. She had been brought up in a strict Methodist home and she was always moralizing about what was “right” and what was “wrong.” She believed it was wrong for a married man to socialize with his friends during the evening hours while his family waited for him at home. She believed a man should not enjoy himself when he had children depending on him for their welfare. She read her Bible every evening after the children were in bed because she had no other interests and nothing else to do. The church never opened its door that she wasn’t there to take part. Her objective in life was to enter into Heaven when her time on earth was over. Whether Finis joined her there was entirely up to him.
Through an acquaintance Finis learned that the lead mines were hiring miners with no experience required. With little enthusiasm, he went to the lead company offices and applied for a position. He filled out a paper, spoke to the hiring agent, and in less than a week was notified that he might start to work right away.
He didn’t want to be a miner, but the pay was more than for a factory worker or a store clerk. It was the only job offered and he believed he had no other choice. The thought of working in a pit in the ground, cut off from sunlight and fresh air, made him physically ill, but he couldn’t let his wife ask her parents for a loan to buy food for his children.
The work in the mine was even more difficult than Finis imagined it would be. He wasn’t used to hard physical labor, his muscles cried out, his stomach churned and his head pounded. He began to lose weight and was plagued with nightmares of being suffocated in the dark or crushed by falling rock. Every day before starting his shift in the mine, he vomited with fear and dread.
After four months, he collapsed while walking home in the early evening. Some people who knew him picked him up and took him home. He was barely conscious and Cora thought he was dying. She called the doctor, even though they didn’t have the money to pay him. After the doctor examined him, he said he had pneumonia and an erratic heart rate. The working conditions in the mine were killing him. He would have to give up the job, or he would be dead by the end of the year.
Secretly he was relieved he couldn’t go back to the mine. He lay in bed and let the life of his wife and children go on around him. As he read novels, dozed, and looked out the window into the back yard, he was happy and contented for the moment. He knew his wife got money from her parents so they could all eat, but what did he care? Everybody needs help at some time or other in their lives. The best thing about it was that everybody left him alone. His wife didn’t nag him as long as she thought he was sick.
After a few weeks he was feeling stronger. He slept sometimes for ten or twelve hours at a time and took all the medicine the doctor gave him. He knew he couldn’t go too much longer without work and so began scanning the helped-wanted ads in the newspapers.
Most of the jobs advertised didn’t interest him, but finally he saw something that caught his eye. The George Hotel in the town of Gerome (fifty miles by rail) was looking for a young man to work as a house detective. No experience was required because the successful candidate would be working with an experienced, licensed detective to learn all he needed to know.
With Cora and the children off to visit relatives, Finis sat down and wrote a detailed letter about himself to the George Hotel in Gerome. He made sure the letter was without mistakes, in his best penmanship, and when he was finished he walked downtown to the post office to mail it. He didn’t want Cora to know about it yet, afraid that talking about it would somehow jinx it. He fervently hoped to get a favorable response.
He heard nothing back for a whole month and had almost stopped thinking about it, when one day, unexpectedly, he received a letter with a Gerome postmark. The letter was from the manager of the George Hotel. He asked Finis to come to Gerome for a tour of the hotel and to see if the two of them might come to a mutually satisfactory agreement regarding employment. The date of his appointment at the hotel was the fourth day of March. He took it as a very good sign because it was his birthday.
On the third of March Finis told Cora he would be traveling to Gerome the next day to see about employment there. He packed a small bag because he planned on staying overnight. He expected her to grumble about the cost of the train ticket, but she said very little. She was probably glad for a chance to get him out of the house for a change.
The next morning he was up before daylight. He shaved himself, put on his best suit and had a light breakfast. He walked downtown to the train depot before anybody was stirring. He felt cheerful and hopeful that at last he was going to make a success of a business enterprise that would change his life.
The train trip down was pleasant enough. He enjoyed the solitude of the car and the wintry scenery through the mountainous foothills. Once in Gerome, he found the George Hotel easily enough, near the train station. He wasn’t nervous at all, but confident. If he didn’t get this job, there would be others. He felt luck turning in his favor. Illness and hard times were behind him.
The men he spoke with were cordial and welcoming. First there was the owner of the hotel, then the manager, and finally the current hotel detective, who wanted to retire before another year was out. They asked him simple questions; his answers were direct and confident. He didn’t tell them he had a wife and two living children at home. They didn’t ask.
The four of them enjoyed a congenial lunch in the hotel restaurant. When lunch was finished, the men asked Finis to take a walk around town while they talked things over. He felt certain they were not going to turn him down.
He explored the town square, looking in store windows, thinking about things he’d buy for his family when the money started coming in, familiarizing himself with the town that he believed would be his new home. He was already making plans in his mind. He’d stay in a room in the hotel for a few weeks or so, and when he had some money saved, he’d move them, Cora and the two little ones, down with him. They would buy a little house a block or two over from the square.
When the courthouse clock struck three, he went back to the hotel and received the good news. The three men wanted him to become their new apprentice hotel detective, to begin as soon as he saw fit. The salary was generous and the outlook very bright. Gerome was growing, already with twenty thousand people. The potential for growth was unlimited.
He spent a restful night in a room on the fifth floor of the hotel, overlooking the town square. Early the next morning he boarded the train that would take him home.
He was sure Cora would be pleased with his news, but the truth was she had little to say.
“What about us?” she said after a while. “Did you forget you have a wife and two children? Did you think to just go off and leave us here and forget about us?”
“Of course not!” he said. “After a while we can all move down there.”
“I don’t want to live in Gerome!”
“My parents are old. I don’t want to leave them. I want to stay here.”
“Suit yourself. I’m going to take this job. I can’t pass it up!”
“You’ll have to send money home to me!” she whined. “I can’t raise two children with no money!”
With little further discourse with Cora, Finis quietly packed his bags. He left three dollars on the kitchen table and kissed Grace and Frank goodbye and told them he’d see them again soon.
He had two free days before beginning his new job. He took the same room on the fifth floor of the hotel that he had before. With money he had held back from Cora, he bought some suits, shirts, neckties, shoes and an overcoat. With a job in a fine hotel, he couldn’t go around looking like a small-town jakey.
The job was all he hoped it would be. The atmosphere of the hotel was stimulating. The people who frequented the place were a different kind from what he was used to. He began getting frequent shaves and haircuts from a barber down the street. He believed it was important in the world of business to look his best.
Any time he received his pay, he sent money to Cora. He wrote that he missed her and the children and was looking forward to the time when they could all be together again. She didn’t write back, but he was sure she was receiving the money because he heard no complaints.
The job was much more dignified than other jobs he had had and much less of a strain on his back. He mostly followed the detective around and did what the detective told him to do. In this way he would learn to handle the job on his own eventually.
He found that the job of detective involved a lot of watching and observing. There were dozens of people coming and going at the hotel all the time. Most of them were harmless, but a few were engaged in some kind of criminal behavior that had to be investigated for the good of the hotel and the paying public.
After he had worked at the hotel for three months, he received a terse letter from Cora. They were all fine, she said, but her father was in his dotage and his health was failing. She decided it was best for all concerned to take the children and go back home and live with her parents so she could help take care of her father and relieve some of the burden on her mother. This meant that Finis no longer had a home to go to that was his own. The hotel was his only home now.
He wrote to Cora less frequently now, but he continued to send money. In his free time at the hotel, rather than staying alone in his room, he began going out in the evening. He had never been much of a drinking man, but he developed a modest drinking habit. He was a social drinker only, he told himself, and didn’t really like the taste of the stuff. He made some congenial friends and spent hours with them swapping stories and playing poker. He didn’t ever mention to any of them that he had a wife and two children at home.
Cora’s next letter surprised him. She heard somehow that he was living the raucous life of a single gentleman and she wanted him to quit the job at the hotel and return home and live the life the Lord intended him to live, as a decent Christian husband and father. At first he laughed at the letter, but after he thought about it for a while he wondered who could be spreading tales about him—somebody who obviously didn’t have enough to do to occupy their time. If it wasn’t for Grace and little Frank, he would see a lawyer and put an end to his marriage with Cora. He always thought it was a mistake to marry, anyway. The worst mistake of his life.
Summer came and he heard nothing else from Cora, but kept sending her money. The hotel was busier than at any other time; there was always some important matter to keep him occupied. When he could arrange a few days, he wanted to go back on the train and see his children and see just how angry Cora was.
Toward the end of summer he became ill again with his lungs. The chambermaid at the hotel found him unconscious in his room and called for help. The hotel doctor examined him and sent him to the hospital. The doctors at the hospital gave him the name of a lung specialist in the city.
He wouldn’t be able to take up his job again for a while. He needed rest and recuperation. The manager at the hotel promised to keep his job open until he was fully recovered.
He began writing to Cora every day, emotional letters, telling her he was sick again and he needed her help. He needed to come home to convalesce and get his strength back, even if “home” meant the home of Cora’s parents. His home, he said, was wherever Cora and his children were. She didn’t respond, except to complain when he stopped sending money.
When Finis was released from the hospital to go home to recuperate, he had no home to go to. He contacted his brother, Charles, his only living relative. Charles wasn’t married and had only a small house on the edge of town behind the railroad tracks, but he was more than willing to take his brother in. Charles had had some medical training in the army and believed he might be of help in his brother’s recovery.
In the home of his brother, with a young doctor to tend to him every day, his health continued to deteriorate. He died on a sweltering day in September. He was thirty-eight years old. The year was 1909.
Grace and Frank saw their father for the last time on earth, lying in his casket at Berryman and Sons Funeral Parlor on Vincennes Street. Grace was eight, old enough to know what death meant. Frank was only two and wondered why his father was lying so quietly in a long black box. He would have cried, if Grace hadn’t been squeezing his hand and pressing down on his shoulder.
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp