An Obligation in Kalamazoo
“Where are you headed, sir?” That’s what the train conductor said to the man. He turned and looked away. The day was turning into night, but still there was just enough daylight that he could see his reflection in the spit-shined windowpane. With his hair combed back, with a slight part down the middle, he asked himself, Will she like my undulating nose and small mouth? He wore his best trousers, with a bow tie and button-down cotton shirt and moccasin shoes that he had ordered through Woolworth’s.
“Kalamazoo, Michigan.” He turned and faced the conductor, who nodded his navy-blue cap in his direction, and turned to take tickets from the rest of the passengers, most of them men, most of them headed in the direction he was not. The next destination on that train was Albion, Michigan, a town that he had only heard about in passing. The man sitting across the aisle from him pulled out a corncob pipe. The smell of tobacco peppered his thoughts.
“Kalamazoo. There’s a town that you don’t care to hear much about,” the man across from him sniggled. That’s where she would be at: Ethel Louise Spencer. Of course, once they were married, that name would become Mrs. William Snodgrass. She would be introduced to other society ladies as soon as he received his photographer’s license.
Photography was such a new device that he could not very well be concerned with the mechanics of what level of social class his profession would afford them when his apprenticeship was completed. All he could concern himself with was the reproduction of the Snodgrass family line so that he may one day pass down his business, should the Lord bless his rightful Episcopalian prayers with an heir.
“Yes, that’s correct,” he said to the man with the slight arrogance he had been practicing since leaving Detroit. With the delicate air of complacency, he took a handkerchief out of his pocket, and wiped the sweat beads from his forehead. He could hear the scamper of orphaned children scattering like cows on a prairie off the train as they were inspected for work-farmers in Albion. The man across from him said, “I read an article about them damned orphans in the Detroit Free Press. Them New York Irish ninnies breed them like chattel, and then don’t want ‘em. They get on these trains and run wild. Damn brats!” The man’s red hair flamed as bits of liverwurst fell on his moustache and he coughed up blood into his hand and wiped it on his shirt. Bill thought he saw black-colored teeth with open spots and red sores in the man’s mouth, but he couldn’t be sure.
‘Could be syphilis,’ a term that one of his clients frequently used when he discussed the various reasons as to why the Irish were giving up their children. He leaned into the aisle to see if there were any empty seats anywhere else. There were none. He removed her sketch from his pocket and studied it. He imagined her to have milky-white skin that he knew must feel like porcelain silk. She probably bathed in the same oils that his clients’ wives bought on their journeys to the Far East: She was an exotic beauty.
Much later, the train pulled into Kalamazoo. The whistle, along with the night-smoky air, let him know that he was in the town. A Negro with the ability to pass with a black tweed suit with a black cap with buttons held a cardboard sign that read, ‘Bill Snodgrass Here.’ He walked over to the Negro and handed him his carpenter’s bag that contained long johns, socks, a comb, five-cent candies, and an advertisement to see Hilda the Fat Lady at the Barnum’s Circus. The Negro, a man named Solomon, opened the back door of the horse-drawn paddy wagon for him. He had finally arrived. The trot through Kalamazoo was quaint and pleasant. The town reminded him of Detroit except for a hill they passed going across the railroad tracks. He saw big Craftsman-style homes on his right and on his left, Irish orphans headed onward with their bare feet stuck out the windows. Solomon looked back at him.
“They’s headed toward the farms. Down by Dowagiac, sir,” Solomon pointed and waved.
Bill said nothing. The wagon had not moved because they were stuck at a railroad pass, waiting for his train to cross the tracks and head toward Solomon’s adopted hometown, a fairly magical place named Niles, Michigan, where a conjurer knew more darkness than Stephen Foster.
Several soap-deficient farm children came up to them to pound on the wagon’s wooden side. “Please, sir,” they said, “spare us some change.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his last change: three pennies. He threw them down on the yellow-green grass and quietly laughed into the night air as they crossed the train tracks. One child threw a piece of unclean celery at the wagon, and was quickly slapped by his mother. The horse’s pace quickened into a competitive trot. Bill wanted to fall asleep but all around him was dirt-clumped hay, and Solomon hummed an odd tune that was strangely comforting. He tried to stay awake but he fell asleep anyway — he was exhausted after days of travel.
He woke soon and Bill pulled the sketch out of his left pants pocket again and read the note attached that he had ignored before. He skimmed down to his favorite line and reread it: Sorry for the sketch. Mother says that it’s improper for a lady-in-waiting to take a photograph without her husband-to-be. Will have to accept my apologies. Bill looked over the sketch. The artist, Ethel’s brother, had captured the angular symmetry of her heart-shaped face. The eyes were only a day-old, and the mouth was also small and unassuming like his. The hair, according to the letter attached, was brown with a slight hint of blonde.
The Negro pulled the horse-drawn paddy wagon behind the house, next to the shed where the livery was. He opened the door and assisted Bill. “Right this way,” he said. He opened the back door where Bill was met by a butler with silver-gray hair and spectacles on a face that reminded him of his favorite author, Mark Twain, whose sketch he had mastered as an apprentice when on his first great lesson on life a few years ago on December 23, 1868, he stood in Young Men’s Hall to view the then-obscure author speak on the heart of man. The lesson he learned was nothing of importance. He learned more from his favorite author by reading than anything else.
“You are Mr. Snodgrass?” Bill nodded his head. “Right this way,” the butler said, and he followed him. He was promptly seated in the front sitting room where a maid was pouring hot tea into a cup and fresh butter cookies were piled on top of a gold platter. Bill had not sat down for two minutes when Ethel entered the room without being introduced. She looked the same as her sketch, only younger and with a black gown on. She took one look at him and to no one in particular said, “He’s not as handsome as his sketch. He may as well shoot Dan Rice! Oh, Mother, I don’t know if he’ll do,” and exited the room as quickly as she came. The maid, who had been pretending to fluff Egyptian-lace pillows, handed Bill a platter of cookies.
As the maid left the room, he thought to himself, ‘Be patient, Ethel. Marriage is a matter of responsibility and obligation, not convenience.’ Ethel was correct, though; he should have shown her a sketch of himself that did not embellish his best features. Nonetheless, Bill Snodgrass pulled out his pocket watch and began to count the seconds.