“DEAR LORD,” Jude Coleman bellowed above the screaming three month old, who rose to the challenge. He cracked his eyes open and found the whole family wide eyed and snickering around the table. He nodded to his nine year old daughter, Birdie, and she jumped up to console the baby. At her touch, little Joseph arched his back and wailed louder, his face turning tomato red. Hopeless.
“Lord, we thank you for this-”
Bang. Bang. Bang.
All five heads whipped toward the door.
“I’ll get it!” Elise leapt up from the table and ran to the front door, her water glass tipping over in the wake of her frothy petticoat departure.
“Oh, good Lord.” Maggie rolled her eyes and leaned across the table to mop it up with her linen napkin. She snatched Jude’s from his lap as well and finished right as Elise walked back into the dining room with the Sheriff of Cincinnati.
Jude looked at his wife in question, but she only shrugged and threw the wet rags under the table. He stood to shake their visitor’s hand. “Sheriff McCord, it’s a pleasure to see you, as always. What brings you out here this Monday night?”
Sheriff McCord pulled his hat off and spun it in his hands as he glanced nervously at Maggie then Jude. The baby’s wail rose and fell like a siren, bouncing off the wooden surfaces in the farmhouse.
The Sheriff’s eyes bulged as he gulped down air. “Well, a complaint has been filed, sir. Two, actually. One by the city of Cincinnati and one by Bell Telephone Company due to the work delay.”
Jude frowned. “Hm. And pray tell, how does this pertain to us?”
Sheriff McCord focused on his toes for courage. “The crew was working on installing telephone poles on the stretch of road in front of your property this morning when Mrs. Coleman, er, persuaded them to stop.”
“And they just stopped? Surely my wife wasn’t the reason for the delay. Perhaps they ran out of supplies or needed a different tool.” Jude didn’t dare look at Maggie while defending her or else he’d feel like a liar.
“No, sir. The men said she bribed them with sweet tea and I quote: ‘sent them home to their mothers.’”
Jude pursed his lips together and leveled his gaze at Maggie.
She threw her hands up. “What? They were hardly older than Lark.”
The Sheriff shrunk away from the accusing finger she pointed at him.
“Shame on this town for forcing its own children to toil in the name of progress.” Maggie leaned into her argument with a ferocity that struck terror in more brave souls than McCord. “Digging holes and installing telephone poles is intense labor for boys who aren’t fully grown. It’s unhealthy and un-eth-i-cal, and I feel no guilt for stepping in.”
“There’s no law against it, Mrs. Coleman.”
She shook her head. “The foreman, as well, was convinced I was right.”
“Because he’s only twenty, and you influenced him, or so it seems,” he said, shrugging his shoulders with melting resolve.
“Proof that he shouldn’t be leading the crew! Honestly, you would think such a monumental, historic task would be handled more professionally.”
“Maggie…” Jude gave her his best no nonsense look, usually reserved for the children.
Not one to wilt under pressure, she jutted her chin out, nostrils flaring in defiance.
Jude took her hand in his. “You can’t stop what’s happening out there, Maggie, and it’s not worth getting in trouble with the law. Tell him it won’t happen again, okay?”
Maggie stared at her dark blue gingham dress and stewed for a few moments. Then she grit her teeth and raised her head proudly. “You’re right- that was a silly thing for me to do. Sheriff McCord, please pass on my apologies to the people who need it. I won’t interfere again.”
A lopsided smile meandered onto his face. “Sure thing, Mrs. Coleman. Thank you, thank you f-for understanding.”
“Would you like to stay for dinner? We still keep Henry’s place set in case a guest comes.” Jude gestured toward the empty plate next to Maggie.
Sheriff McCord inched backward until he bumped into the yellow floral wallpaper. “That’s mighty kind of you, but I, uh, I’d hate to disrupt your domestic bliss. You folks have a good evening.”
Jude leaned his chin on his palm and watched Maggie eat. She focused on cutting her chicken and vegetables even though she could feel his gaze boring into her. Finally, she sighed and set down her fork.
“Oh, don’t give me that look,” she said when he refused to speak. “I’m the hard headed daughter of a failed inventor. You knew what you were marrying!”
“I’m just amazed, honestly.”
Maggie frowned. “Why?”
“You single handedly shut down one of the biggest projects in the state of Ohio.”
“Well, they were easily persuaded.”
Jude kissed Maggie on the cheek the next morning before leaving for work. “I’m going to work on your latch today.”
“Do you have my sketch?” she asked, her hands deep in bubbles in the sink.
He nodded and patted his pocket. “Be a good girl,” he teased.
“Mm-hm, always,” she responded with a smirk as he walked out the door.
Birdie drew a picture at the table while the older girls giggled over a secret.
“Plates, please!” Maggie called. The girls immediately obeyed, and Maggie glanced at their legs as they walked toward her. “No trousers today. Wear your work dresses.”
“But Mama, we always garden in trousers,” Lark whined. “My shovel gets all tangled in the dress.”
“The whole town already thinks I’m crazy, but I won’t have them talking about my daughters, too. Today we will wear dresses, like normal girls. You can wear trousers as soon as the telephone crew is gone.”
“I agree, Mama,” Elise said as smooth as butter.
Lark rolled her eyes in disgust. “You just want to look good in front of the boys.”
Elise raised her chin proudly, looking very much like her mother. “At least I have a chance of that.”
“Elise!” Maggie snapped. She glared at her oldest daughter until she dropped her head.
“Sorry, Lark,” she said quietly.
“Now, scoot! Go change.” Maggie whipped the dishtowel at their bottoms, and the girls squealed and ran out of the room.
The Colemans only owned three acres of land on the outskirts of Cincinnati, but it was plenty of space to grow enough vegetables for their family as well as their neighbors. Ten different families bought a basketful of produce each week filled with beets, carrots, and lettuce, among other things, depending on what was in season. Maggie secretly hoped that the beautiful produce would one day replace their memories of her colorful past. Most of all, it provided a nice side income and kept Jude off her back about joining him in his metalworking business. He was the most sought after locksmith in town and also manufactured a variety of latches for farm use.
Before long, the telephone pole crew rolled up in the backs of two flatbed trucks. Their raucous laughter and loud voices carried across the Coleman’s property as they dug the deep holes required for keeping the poles stable.
“Can’t they work without talking?” Lark asked when she stopped to take a break.
Elise hacked another dandelion with her hoe, then stood up tall, spreading her arms out to stretch her back. She smiled when the boys looked their way. Some of them had taken off their shirts.
“Ew, they’re all sweaty,” Lark said.
One of the boys whistled. Elise giggled, but Lark shook her head.
“They’re not whistling at you,” she said, pointing toward their mother. Maggie was near the edge of the property working at the end of the row of tomatoes.
Someone called out in a squeaky falsetto, “I’d love some more of your sweet tea, please!”
Maggie stood straight up and placed her hands on her hips.
Both girls dropped their tools and sprinted over to her, their dresses hitched up around their thighs to allow freedom of movement. The telephone crew doubled over laughing.
Lark reached her first and grabbed her arm. “Don’t engage. Just walk away, Mama,” she coached.
“They destroy our view and harass us while we’re on our own property? Unbelievable,” Maggie said.
Elise arrived with a red face. “This is the most embarrassing moment of my life,” she muttered, but she took Maggie’s other arm and guided her toward the house.
Maggie shook them off as they walked. “I’m fine girls. I promise I won’t make a scene today.”
“We already made a scene,” Elise groaned.
“It’s probably time for me to nurse Joseph. Why don’t you girls go clean up and make lunch.” She fanned her face as she walked. “We need to take a break from the heat and these silly dresses.”
Birdie walked out from the shadows of the big silver maple right on cue, the baby draped over her shoulder. She hummed a tune of her own and smiled sweetly at her mother.
Maggie kissed Birdie’s forehead before taking Joseph. “Thank you, Birdie. You’re an angel from heaven.” It was the one thing the whole family agreed on.
Birdie chattered happily and bounced behind her sisters as they went into the house. “I found a praying mantis! It tried to box me with its front legs, and then a huge robin swooped down and ate it!”
“Ew! Awesome!” Elise and Lark said simultaneously.
Maggie stopped on the front porch and eased into a rocker, careful to move slowly with her most capricious baby. Poor little Joseph still hadn’t mastered nursing, and he often got quite distressed while attempting to get his fair share of milk. Today he latched on without a problem, and Maggie relaxed as she looked out over their little piece of paradise.
The banging of equipment and male voices broke her reverie. A moment later, a small plane buzzed over the house, wobbling in the breeze as it cruised over their land.
“Really, of all days?” Maggie asked in disbelief. Joseph popped off to look into his Mama’s face, a little dribble of milk rolling out of his mouth.
“Oh, it’s okay, baby boy. Don’t mind me.” She wiped the milk with her handkerchief and guided him back to the source.
Maggie had repressed the memories of her dysfunctional childhood for years, but now she could feel the technology creeping toward her, dragging its trail of live wires and sparks behind it, reminding her of the many ways it could go wrong. Her father, half genius and half crazy, had obsessively pursued his inventions, depleting their savings and destroying their family. If any of the children dared interrupt his tinkering, he would yell “FORWARD PROGRESS!” in their face and slam the door.
While her father burned through one idea after another, the Wright brothers were up the road in Dayton getting a successful bicycle business off the ground. Then they literally achieved flight in 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and the news sent Maggie’s father into a downward spiral.
A year later, when she spied smoke billowing out of his work shed, Maggie rushed into the flames to pull him out. He died in her arms, and she would forever bear the scars. They rumpled her palms and snaked up her arms, but they were nothing compared to the shame that embedded itself into her heart when people whispered as she walked through town. It was then that she developed the habit of walking with her chin held high, secretly thinking, Forward progress be damned, and all of you, too.
Joseph cooed and pulled her braid with his tiny fingers. She placed him on her shoulder to burp him, and her heart pinched again. His dark eyes reminded her of Henry’s, but that was the only similarity. Henry had been a smiley, easy going baby and a brilliant boy. She missed him so much she could hardly breathe when she thought of him. Moving on- lunchtime.
As the week wore on, Maggie’s flashbacks increased, exacerbated by each telephone pole standing guard over her land. On Sunday, the Coleman family headed into town for church and lunch with friends, and by the time they headed home, it was late afternoon.
“I need to corral these chickens!” Jude called out as the girls climbed the porch stairs. Joseph wailed pitifully; his colic always worsened as the day progressed.
“I’ll take him, Mama,” Birdie volunteered, and she hummed her way back to the lawn.
Maggie halted in the foyer. “What. Is. THAT.”
Elise and Lark peered around her and gasped. A giant black contraption hung on the wall, fresh wood shavings still on the floor.
“Is that a telephone?” Lark asked.
Elise leaped forward and squealed in delight until she turned and saw Maggie’s face.
“That has to go.”
“No, Mama. This is amazing,” she said, eyes wide with fear.
“It’s me or the telephone!” Maggie screamed, and she ran at it with her parasol raised over her head, ready to strike.
Elise and Lark threw themselves in her path, holding their mother at bay while she thrashed and yelled.
“STOP!” Jude bellowed from the front door. The girls froze- Lark pressed against the phone with her arms spread in defense, Elise held Maggie back by her braid, and Maggie’s fists clenched Lark’s collar. They all panted as they looked at Jude.
A dead chicken hung over his shoulder, and his eyes glinted like steel. “Now, which one of you hens should I deal with first?”
Maggie dropped her hands. “I’m sorry, girls,” she whispered, then ran out of the house. Jude followed. She turned on him when they were out of hearing range.
“How could you put such a thing in our house?!” she spat.
“Settle down, Maggie.”
“And without telling me!”
“I had to do it when you weren’t around, otherwise you would have whipped the workers until they ran for their lives.”
“If you weren’t my husband I’d give you a whippin, too.”
“Traitor,” she hissed.
“STOP ACTING LIKE YOUR FATHER!”
Her eyes widened in cold fury, and her voice dropped low. “How dare you say that to me.”
“It’s true- you’re being irrational and obsessive. You’re just as against technology as he was for it.”
She scoffed and rolled her eyes.
“If that obsession starts to hurt your family, then how are you different than him?”
Maggie crossed her arms and grit her teeth. They stood in silence for a long time. Jude softened first, as always.
“Maggie, I understand. If anyone has a reason to hate technology, it’s you.” He raised her hands to his lips and kissed the scars on her palms. “But you taught our children Morse Code when they were five. And all of my best latches were designed by you. We could easily patent them.”
Tears ran down her face as she stared in the direction of the telephone poles. “Henry left us two years ago yesterday.”
“I know,” he said softly. “Believe me, I haven’t forgotten.”
Jude glanced at his watch. “It’s almost 5. Come on, I have a surprise for you."
Maggie dug in her heels. “No, I’ve had enough surprises for one day.”
With her hand in an iron vice grip, Jude took off toward the house, bounding along like a long legged colt and dragging her behind him. Maggie cried out as she stepped on the hem of her dress and fell to her knees. His momentum yanked her onto her face in the dirt.
“Juuuude,” she whined as she pushed onto her hands and knees and spit dirt out of her mouth.
“Running out of time!” he yelled. He scooped her up and threw her over his shoulder and continued on as fast as he could. Maggie’s arms dangled down behind his legs and her face bounced on his bottom.
“Jude Coleman! Put me down!”
He laughed loudly as he hobbled across the yard. Three braided heads bobbed in the window as they giggled at the show, and a flock of chickens scattered to make way for the locksmith and his wife.
Maggie grunted each time her face smashed into his bottom, until finally, she sank her teeth into his glute.
“AH! Damn it, woman! Did you just bite me?”
Her laugh was muffled by his backside.
“You made me curse on a Sunday.”
“You installed a telephone in my house on a Sunday, you asshole!”
“And you’re gonna love it, or so help me God!”
Jude stomped up the porch steps, through the front door Lark held open for him, and dumped Maggie down by the telephone.
Then it rang.
Maggie jumped at the sound, so sharply metallic and insistent. It was worse than Joseph’s cry.
Jude’s mouth split into a wide grin. “Answer it.”
Maggie looked from his confident face to the six curious eyes peeking around the corner. She slowly stuck out her tongue and pulled a piece of grass off. She lifted her chin and took a deep breath.
She gasped. “Henry, is that you?”
“It sure is! They just installed a phone in my boarding house, so I can call you every weekend.”
Tears of joy raced down her face as she heard the voice of her son for the first time in two years. “It sounds like you’re right here in the room with me!”
The girls crowded around the phone to listen, and Jude chuckled silently as he rubbed his bite mark.
“What’s happening in Cincinnati?”
“Mama and Papa are trying to kill each other!
“Ha! That’s old news, Lark!”
Maggie clutched the phone in her hands with her whole family gathered around and marveled at this new way of staying connected.