It’s 1924 and Gertrude Leskow has just discovered her brother Louis is gay. She is determined to save him from a life of disgrace. But before she can find the words to tell him what she knows, she meets the dazzling Frances and, in spite of her own engagement to David Roy, falls in love with her. Now Gertrude has to make up her mind about her identity, what she owes Louis, and her future, with or without David.
Set against a detailed background of everyday life in the 1920s Midwest, and patterned on the fairy tale “The Hoodie Crow,” The Poison Hill is about all the things that can happen after happily ever after.
The photograph was square, with white edges, taken with their father’s camera last summer at the lake. Gertrude remembered it well: Louis had posed in his swimsuit, one hand on his hip.
But since then, someone had scribbled all over the picture. Large, crude loops of rough blue ink elaborated her brother’s swimsuit, flaring his trunks into a skirt and blotted his head with frizzy curls, flapper-short. His lips were girlish, too, bow-shaped and grotesque. Out of them came a balloon, with the words: hey there, big boy, how ‘bout a date?
The handwriting was her brother’s.
The room was warm with sunlight. Gertrude sat next to her open suitcase on the cottage floor, the Lilac Fairy Book in one hand, the picture in the other.
The lake was too cold for swimming, but you could sit on the dock and dip your feet, as the green waves came up around your ankles, until after a few minutes the sting of the chill faded away. Gertrude went out the front door of the cottage and down the porch steps, as she had intended before she found the photo. But something was sitting high in her chest, making her feel sick.
There were pine trees growing in the sandy soil, their roots running out of the ground, like the nervous fingers of a piano player feeling around for the right note. Behind her the screen door slammed. If she could walk back through it, into time as it was a few minutes ago, before she had opened the book and found the picture...
Maybe it was nothing. Maybe in an hour or two it would look different, just be some silly joke, something to laugh at. Yes. And probably Louis would have an explanation. As soon as they had arrived at the cottage, he had gone to his room and slammed the door – this was known, in the family, as “one of Louis’ Black Days.” But once he came out, she would ask him, and surely then he would throw the picture on the floor and laugh, say it was nothing.
In fact, he had done that before – crumpled up a paper she had hardly seen, torn something out of her hand, said mind your own business, laughing his usual too-loud whoop. She had pretended not to mind when he did this – let him have his secrets – who cared? – after all...
It couldn’t be any more than that. She had probably misunderstood, misinterpreted. If she were to look at the picture again, her mistake would be obvious.
She went back up the steps of the cottage and into her room. The Lilac Fairy Book was still on the floor next to the suitcase. Her clothes inside – slips, underthings, tomorrow’s dress – were a jumble. Her mother would certainly have something to say if she saw that, but her mother had walked to the general store in town to get things for dinner. Alida, their housekeeper, was in the kitchen, but Alida did not care. She picked the Lilac Fairy Book up and thumbed through the pages, hoping that the picture would not be there, where she had thrust it back in so blindly, hoping that she had imagined it. Something tumbled out, an unwanted moth, square with white edges, landing on her skirt. She took it up, by the sides.
It was worse, even, than she remembered. The grinning face, smeared with huge blue lips, his bare arms, handsome and masculine, turned sissyish, the swishing skirt. Louis must have sat there, driving the pen into the photo, detailing the pleats of the skirt, the curls of the hair, penning those horrible words in the slanting handwriting she had seen on every letter Louis had ever written, every note he had ever left on the dining room table.
Hey there, big boy, how ‘bout a date?
It was so horribly ugly. Violent, splashing, hideous, as if he had dug into his pictured self to carve out something else – for she had no doubt, as long as she held it, as long as she kept her eyes on it, that it was not a joke, it could never be a joke, there was something too intense about it – in some strange, dark way it made sense, even –
She went out the door of the cottage again, and this time she did not notice the trees or the sand or the lake. She walked to the very end of the dock, where, standing there, she remembered that in colleges they had those theatre clubs where the boys took on girls’ parts and dressed up as such, and it was all a joke, a good time – normal. Everyone knew that.
But Louis was not at the U anymore. Even when he was there, he had never been in a theatre club or been interested in any such thing. And it was not a picture of Louis dressed up as a girl. Louis had drawn himself that way, deliberately.
She sat down on the dock. Her legs dangled over the water, and she felt the sun spread warmth across the dark cotton of her dress. Behind her the front door of the cottage opened. When she turned her head, her father was standing on the porch holding his collection equipment. He started down the steps and into the woods, his head already down, eyes scanning the ground for arrowheads.
Something moved in the window of Louis’ room, as if he had dropped the curtain back. She turned her head back to the lake, shutting her eyes against the glitter of the water. Don’t let him come out, let the Black Day last all weekend.
Louis had borrowed the book from her a few weeks ago, left it back on her bed, as casual as ever. But why – why – should the picture be there – why should she find it? It was like Paradise Lost in Senior Year. Why, she had asked Miss Dolan, did God put the Tree of Knowledge in the middle of the garden, right there in front of Adam and Eve? Surely, it would have made sense to put it somewhere else, beyond the garden walls, keep it out of their hands altogether. Maybe, Miss Dolan had said. But maybe God meant them to find it.
What do you think, class? That would be an interesting topic for an essay, wouldn’t it?
She hadn’t understood. She had never finished her assignment on Paradise Lost, either; she had gotten bronchitis that winter, as she did every winter, and missed six weeks of school.
She didn’t understand now, either. Just that she had found the tree for herself, in her favorite book.
There was a faint, far-away twist of pain below her stomach.
She froze, her fingers clenching around the edge of the dock. The pain rose and held itself, like a note of music ringing through her body. She looked down at her knuckles, turning white against the gray wood of the dock, holding her breath. Slowly, slowly, the pain turned, like an animal turning around and around in order to sleep and died away.
It couldn’t be. Not today. It was too early; she had counted just yesterday, to be sure, and it wasn’t a month yet. Last time was the Saturday they went over to Minneapolis, and she’d worried the whole time that it might come, and it came late the next day, Sunday. Seven days from Sunday and seven more and another seven, but it still should be next week. Now, now, of all the times to happen... She sat without moving, feeling the beginning of nausea in her stomach. A wave splashed over her ankles, then another; she stared at the dock until it seemed to waver. Had she even brought the pills Dr. Schwartz gave her, long ago, before her mother had given up dragging her to every specialist in the Twin Cities? She should get up and go in the cottage to see... Maybe it was a mistake. It was too early, it really was too early, it wasn’t fair...
A huge gulp of nausea made her press her lips together, as the sweat ran off her face. She lifted her hand and bit her thumb, to counterweight it, holding her breath again.
The pain crashed down, like an accidental chord banged on the piano. Gertrude turned, pulling herself onto her knees on the dock, and vomited over the side of it.
When it was over, she lay with the warm wood beneath her cheek, listening to the waves chopping against the underside of the dock, floating away with them. But she had to get up – the pain would only get worse – and get to bed before she collapsed. She pushed up on shaky wrists, trying not to look at the bits of food still floating on the waves along the side of the dock. At least no one was around – better now than it had been at school, where she had thrown up on Miss Oliver’s buckskin shoes, or at work, where she had been bundled home in the car, once, with Dr. Nair, Rose and Daisy all standing around watching. She made her way down the dock and up the sandy slope towards the cottage. The pain and fear had pushed Louis’ picture out of her mind – it was not fair, somehow, to have the two problems together, to have to decide what to do about it now, while she was in so much pain.
As she walked, the cramps came back, just a twist, a pinch, a knot which drew up and worked itself out, making her legs shaky as she climbed the porch. She went into the kitchen. Alida was sitting at the table, her head bent over a detective magazine.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, not looking up.
“I need a hot water bottle.” Gertrude glanced at the stove, hoping the tank had been filled. There was no electricity at the cottage and no indoor water.
“Don’t know if I packed it.”
“It came early, huh?” Alida looked over now, deliberately waiting for a response before she moved. She was a broody-looking woman, with thinning gray hair pulled back tight from her temples into a mysterious, too-large bun. It was Louis’ contention that she was passionately in love with their father.
“Yes.” Gertrude kept her eyes lowered, embarrassed. You would think Alida would be more sympathetic, being a woman, having gone through this herself once, presumably, sometime back in the Stone Age. Instead, she was always sardonic, as if Gertrude – or women in general – were getting no more than they deserved. The pain rose again, sharp, and she pinched her lips together and put the back of her hand to her mouth.
“All right –” Alida’s hand steered her away, out of the kitchen. “Go lie down. I’ll get a gin jar fixed, and a towel, if I can’t find the hot water bottle.”
Gertrude nodded, still pinching her lips together and hurried to her room.
When she was a freshman, there had been a special assembly for the girls, in which they had sat through a vague lecture and been given an even vaguer pamphlet, which explained all about Nature’s wonderful plan for women. But somehow none of the other girls, and not one of the lily-fingers writers who had authored the booklet, had mentioned the grinding pain rising from her middle, the sweat dripping off her forehead, the sudden burst of nausea which had caused her to bring up the lunch she had eaten a peaceful hour before. It had been like that every month, since then. But she deserved it, in a way, because she lied. Every month she lied. Food poisoning, she had said to Dr. Nair. Maybe something I ate. Every month the same torment, the same collapse, and then the moment she felt better her problem ceased to exist. Every month she waited until the last minute, as the pain came on, believing it might not be so bad this time.
At the end of freshman year, Miss Oliver, the Hygiene teacher, had written the name of a doctor in Minneapolis on a piece of paper and given it to Gertrude’s mother. Go out and breathe God’s fresh air, the doctor had suggested, adding also that Gertrude should avoid stimulating beverages. When this did not help, Mrs. Leskow made appointments freely, passing from specialist to specialist, as well as attending lectures by Indian yogis on Mental Healing and soliciting advice from the old Bohemian woman who ran the cloakroom at the Radisson. Hot baths, cold baths, special diets, special exercises, medicines, bromides, poisons that made her head swim and her heart race. Finally, in her senior year, Gertrude had said no more. Dr. Schwartz had been the last of them.
When Alida brought the gin jar, full of hot water and wrapped in a towel, Gertrude clutched it to her stomach. Sweat ran down her forehead; she kicked off the scratchy cottage blankets and tried to sleep.
Some indefinite amount of time later she heard the voices of her mother and father through the thin walls of the cottage and opened her eyes. She tried to think of David to put herself back to sleep, though it was embarrassing to connect him with this. A knock came on her door.
“Are you feeling better?” her mother asked. “Do you want Alida to bring you something on a tray?”
“No.” She closed her eyes, hoping her mother would go away. Instead, she heard her feet as she came towards the bed and felt her hand on her forehead.
“Gertrude, it just so happens at bridge last week Sally Anne told me Dr. Vliet has a new partner. His name is Dr. Kirby – he practiced in Chicago until now – the most up-to-date methods, Sally Anne said, and you know she never speaks highly of any doctor –”
“No,” she said, weakly.
“Well, really, all I’m asking is for you to think about it.”
She waited for her mother to leave. Her mother’s feet, turning, made the boards creak, but at the door she fired a parting shot.
“What will you do after you get married? Think of how David might feel. No man likes to hear about –”
When Gertrude opened her eyes again, the room was completely dark. She stirred, moving against the now-cold gin jar. The pain was gone; it always did go, after the first few hours, though it left her feeling weak and newly born. She could hear her parents talking on the front porch.
“...I think he’ll come out tomorrow. I really do.”
“Best to take no notice.” Her father’s chair squeaked, as if he were moving it. “I figured that out a long time ago.”
Louis. That picture. Sick misery rose in her throat, fear and repulsion that she did not know what to do with. Her parents could never, ever know - they could never, ever find out. A few hours had not fixed it. Nothing was the same in her life now, nothing would ever be the same.
Including David. Especially David.
She stretched forward, feeling in the end table drawer for matches, then, stretching even further, lit a candle. The flame curled at first, small and blue, and then steadied, throwing deep shadows on the room: the Lilac Fairy Book, splayed open on the floor, her still half-unpacked suitcase. It seemed longer ago than that afternoon that she had sat there, holding the photo.
It was Louis who had brought David into her life. He had appeared in their driveway in 1919, in that jittery spring after the war: an intense, upright boy who even in high school still tied up his books with a cord, who waited for her brother at 7 a.m., rain, snow or fog, refusing all enticements to come into the kitchen. Nah, I’ll wait out here. Nah, I’m OK, Mrs. Leskow. Long after he must have realized the gaffe, he continued to call Alida by their mother’s name, too diffident, too ashamed, maybe, to acknowledge the mistake. He wasn’t used to housekeepers, having only a mother, and a dead father, of some means, whom she knew little about. Only fourteen, with her hair still down, she had taken to peering out her bedroom window to watch him standing there, holding his books; she had come to the door with Alida, sometimes, conscious of a new dress, buckle shoes, knowing she was still a little girl in his eyes, but hoping he might notice her smile, or the particularly friendly way she spoke to him.
That was the year that Louis had brought home “Crazy Blues,” and Gertrude had found him dancing a solo Grizzly Bear in the living room, arms squeezed around himself, hopping from side to side. She had never heard music like that before. Their parents thought it was awful – that murky wailing, those screeching horns! Yet it was life, really, it was truth and justice and passion and everything else that had been locked up in the closet and lost. She had sat in front of the Victrola and wound it up, over and over, shivering happily as the distant voice had moaned:
I can’t sleep at night, I can’t eat a bite...
’Cause the man I love, he don’t treat me right...
Once, David, upon finding her there, had actually grabbed her and stepped her backwards across the room in a kind of tango, dipping her far, far back until she shrieked.
All the next year (freshman year for her) Louis and David had played tennis; they had swum at the natatorium, even during blizzards; they had ridden out to Edina to witness a man send a wireless signal through the air all the way to La Crosse, Wisconsin; they had explained to her, in earnest tones, the theory of relativity; they had gone down to the river to hear the dance bands on the riverboats and ridden back arguing about trumpeters and girls. They had called each other, for no explicable reason, “Omar,” and had laughed when people asked why. Louis had written the entire Class Play. The Class Prophecy had been that he would go to Hollywood and direct cowboy pictures starring himself as “Louis Leskow, Scourge of the Purple Hills.” In the Class Will he had left his blues records to Miss Leach, the music teacher, and his tango ability to the basketball team.
The next year Louis had gone across the river, to the University of Minnesota, when he felt like it, at least. And one day that winter, one golden day, David had stopped by to see her after basketball practice. He had looked uneasily around her room – the shelves of story books, the tobacco cards of actresses and world cities she had pinned to a cork board, the diaphanous scarves she had draped over the lamps – and then had sat down and started talking about biplanes.
“In twenty years, people will take them everywhere,” he said. “Like streetcars now.”
For the rest of the winter, she had waited every afternoon, sick in bed with bronchitis or her other various illnesses, watching the clock, listening to noises outside her window, wondering if he would come again.
By her junior year, David was gone, off at Princeton, but she wrote to him, and sometimes he wrote back. Betty Slotsky bobbed her hair that fall, and in two months all the other girls, except Gertrude and two others, had done the same. She had missed so much school by then that Principal Sloane recommended summer courses. In the spring Louis had skipped his exams, sleeping late and coming downstairs grinning at 11:30, expecting breakfast. Her father had gone to talk to the registrar the next day, and Louis had never returned to the U.
And then it was her senior year, and by now high school had turned into a dried-up thing, a husk of something that had never opened. That year Louis brought home Bessie Smith’s “Downhearted Blues,” but the girls on the Senior Ball Committee preferred “Louisville Lou.” There were pep rallies and weenie roasts, to which she did not go, and the Class Play was written by some clever girls who had no idea she existed. The Class Prophecy did not mention her, and the Class Will imagined her leaving her hair combs and switches to Paul Godfrey, a slobby boy in the junior class. At this there was a huge shout of laughter, which she pretended to share. She did not go to the Senior Ball, and she had to go to school all summer to get a real diploma.
But then it did not matter, because when David came home for Christmas vacation, they had gone for a drive to Fort Snelling, and when Louis had said it was too cold and gone back to sit in the car, David had asked her to marry him.
She had imagined the scene so many times that at first she did not believe he was serious. It seemed to happen out of nowhere: she had always had hopes, of course, but he had never given her any concrete evidence of his feelings. Then she had seen that his hands were trembling. He was shaking with nerves, smiling nervously, just shaking. Louis had said later that it was probably from the cold...
They were going to be married next year when he was done at Princeton. This summer he was working at a newspaper in Chicago. She liked to think of him there, walking among the crowds on Michigan Avenue, with the flags flying, the wind blowing off the lake, following a lead for one of the big-name reporters, at the same time collecting material for the novel he would write someday. (He had already written part of a play, which Louis said was really very good.) Once they were married, they would live in Chicago or New York, or somewhere, anyway – these details could be dealt with later – besides St. Paul.
She would never be able to tell David about Louis. Even if you were supposed to tell your future husband everything, for this there were no words, not even a shadow of an idea of how she might say, how she might describe such a thing as that picture.
Still half-stretched out of bed, she put her cheek against the pillow and lay there, listening to the sounds from outside, the ugly see-saw scraping of insect wings and legs, the silence of the cottage itself, now that her parents’ conversation had stopped. Next door Louis’ room was quiet. Yet she knew he was awake, also lying there, also listening. She could always tell his moods. She had always known so much about him, everything about him, and she turned over, kicking at the covers again, for everything was tarnished and wrong, every breath she had drawn in her entire life had been futile and stupid and meaningless. She was in a lake with no bottom, feeling with her toes for something solid, Louis swimming farther and farther away. She could not let herself be left alone, without Louis and David to admire, to guide her; she thought of them as runners who had reached their destination, who stood holding the gates of adulthood open, waiting good-naturedly for her to catch up.
She had sat holding the photo until she could not bear it any longer and then had tossed it into the wastebasket, forcefully, knowing full well that anyone could find it – her mother, for instance, or Alida when she emptied the trash. She had wanted only to never see or think of it again. But it was there now, only a few feet away from her. She could feel that, too. She knew it was there, and she knew she could no more deal with it now than she could earlier in the day. It would have to stay there. She closed her eyes and prayed to the God of her parents, the God of Sunday School: please help me, rescue me, make it go away, make it be forgotten. Just this one thing. Please.