Under the Nebraska Sky - Part 1
Chapter One: Leaving Home
"I don't see why I have to go," Seth said as his mother packed his carpetbag.
She acted as if she didn't hear him, and very calmly folded another of his shirts and laid it in on top the rest of his clothes in the bag.
"I don't see why I have to go," Seth repeated.
"Seth," his mother said finally, sighing, "stop saying that. We've been all through this, a thousand times already."
"I know," said Seth, "and I still don't see why I have to go."
She stopped then, and straightened her back, looking at him in silence for a moment. Then she sat down on the edge of the bed.
"Seth," she said, "you can't come with us. I just don't see how. Your father is going to be traveling to England to be in his play, and I'm going to be in New York, in my play."
"Exactly my point," Seth said, poking his finger in the air to emphasize what he was trying to get across to his mother. "You're going to New York, which is only two hours away from here by train, so I don't see why I can't come along with you, Mother."
"I'm sorry, but being in a play takes a lot of time, and a lot of concentration," she said. "Besides, you know how rough and dirty those theatres can be. It's just no place for a little boy. I just can't work and look after you as well, I'm afraid."
Seth winced at being called a little boy, but he didn't argue with her over it.
"Mrs. Gilbert could come with us," Seth said.
"Mrs. Gilbert is old, Seth," his mother told him. "And besides, she has her family here. You can't really expect her to uproot and follow the two of us to New York, can you?"
"So maybe we can find someone like Mrs. Gilbert in New York," Seth argued. "Then I could come along with you."
"No, Seth," his mother said firmly. "I don't have time to interview nannies."
Seth hated the word "nanny." First of all, it made the person who was the nanny sound like a goat or something, and second of all, he was eleven years old and didn't really like the idea of still having a nanny. But he'd be glad to have one, if it meant he could somehow stay with his mother.
His mother began to put more of his clothes in the carpetbag, and finally Seth dared to ask what he had wanted to ask for days.
"Are you and Father going to stay married?" he said.
His mother stopped her packing, and turned to look at him.
"I don't think that's any of your concern," she said finally.
"Really?" Seth said. "I'm asking if you and Father are going to still be my parents."
"Of course we'll still be your parents," his mother said, sounding kind of angry, "We'll never stop being your parents. But..."
His mother didn't answer.
"Go downstairs and tell your father he can call for the cab to take you to the train station," she said.
"Aren't you coming?" Seth asked, surprised. "I mean, aren't you going to tell me good-bye?"
"Certainly," his mother said, "but we're going to do it here, son. We have trains of our own to catch, and we can't be seeing you off and make it to our own trains on time. There simply isn't enough time to do both."
Seth thought angrily of all the other times when there "hadn't been enough time." There were missed trips to the zoo, and forgotten birthdays, and not being able to celebrate Christmas until two days afterward, and all because his parents were acting in some play or performing at some theatre. No, there hadn't been enough time for anything, and now they were all splitting up.
"Will I see you again?" he asked.
"Of course," his mother said without looking at him.
"As soon as I can, when my play is finished," she said, trying to sound loving but somehow it sounded to Seth as if she was just annoyed by him. "Now go tell your father to call the cab for you, and hurry!"
Seth trudged out of his room and down the stairs. His father was standing in front of their fireplace, just kind of staring at the fire that was dying down inside it and running his fingertip over the sides of the whiskey bottle he was holding. Even from six feet away, Seth could smell the whiskey on his father and noticed that the stuff inside the bottle was already about half gone.
"Mother says you should call a cab for me now," he said obediently.
His father nodded, and went to the telephone. He spoke into the receiver to tell the operator where the cab was to come and where it was supposed to take Seth.
"Are we ever going to live here again?" Seth asked.
His father thought about it for a second, and shrugged.
"I don't know," he said. "We'll see. But you've lived in other apartments, son. What does it matter, whether it's this one or not?"
"I don't know," Seth answered him. "I guess it's just because we've lived her for four years, longer than anywhere else. I think of this as home now."
"Yes," his father said, going back to stand by the fireplace. "Yes, I suppose you would."
That was all that his father said, and then his mother came down the steps, lugging his overstuffed carpetbag with both hands on the handle of the bag. His father took another good swallow of whiskey and then set the bottle down on the fireplace mantle.
"Well, Seth," his father said, laying both hands on his shoulders, "I suppose we should say our good-byes now. We don't want to make a scene when the cabbie gets here, do we?"
Seth didn't answer. He had seen his father give long and tearful good-byes in the plays he acted in. But somehow he knew this good-bye wouldn't be like that.
"Take care, Seth," his mother said, planting a kiss on top his dark hair. She smoothed his hair for a moment. "We should have gotten your hair cut one more time before you left."
"I'm sure they have barbers out in Nebraska," Seth's father said. "And I'm sure Hank and Gertrude will see he goes to one when he needs to."
The idea of Nebraska barbers made Seth shudder a little. He had images of getting a bowl plopped on his head and having some half-blind old man chop off all the hair that stuck out from under the bowl. He had heard that things were pretty primitive in places like Nebraska.
"What are Uncle Hank and Aunt Gertrude like?" Seth asked.
His mother and father traded glances.
"They're fine, upstanding, respectable people," his mother said, trying to smile. "They have a fine general store in a town called Beeksville. They're quite prosperous, really."
"I know," Seth said, "but what are they like?"
"Oh, you'll get along fine with them," his father said.
Seth just looked between his mother and father. It was as if they both knew something but were not telling him.
"Do they have any kids?" he asked.
"A son, Norbert, two years older than yourself," his mother said, "And a girl named Virginia, who is just your age. So you'll have some cousins to be with."
There was a knock at the door, and when Seth's father opened it, there was a cab driver standing outside.
"Well, are you ready?" his father asked, trying to smile at him and not really succeeding.
"No," Seth said truthfully.
"Come on, Seth," his mother said, putting her hand to his back and gently pushing him toward the door. "Be Momma's Little Soldier and be brave."
Seth cringed at the "Momma's Little Soldier" part. That's what she used to say to him when he was five or six and didn't want to take medicine or eat his cauliflower. But suddenly he wished he could really be five or six again. Anything but what he was about to do. He turned all of a sudden and threw his arms around her neck.
"Oh, Seth!" she nearly screamed. "My hair! Don't muss my hair, son! You know how long it takes me to do it up!"
Seth let go of her and she immediately ran back into the apartment to check her hair in the mirror they had hanging in the hallway. She patted it back into place and then came back to the doorway.
"Will I hear from you?" he asked, trying not to cry as the cab driver took his carpetbag for him.
"We'll write, once we get more settled," his father said. "We promise."
He looked back at them as he followed the cabbie down the walk. He wanted to remember them standing in the doorway like that. He wished he had thought to look at his room one last time, since he believed he would probably never see that again either.
The cabbie loaded the bag and Seth stepped up into the cab. The driver took his seat and clucked to his horse, and the cab rolled down the street and away from everything Seth knew and understood about life. Seth kept his face turned away from the cab driver so he maybe wouldn't see the tears that wouldn't stay away from his eyes.
The cabbie bought Seth's ticket at the train station: "One way, destination Beeksville, Nebraska. Name's Seth Bellingham."
The cabbie handed Seth his ticket and then handed him the extra money that was supposed to be his tip.
"Good luck, kid," the cabbie said, smiling some at him.
"Hey, mister!" Seth said, looking at the money. "I can't take this. This is your tip!"
The cabbie shrugged.
"Don't spend it all in once place," he said, then tipped his hat a little and turned to go back to his cab.
There was nothing for Seth to do now but get on the train. He had considered running away and going back home for just a second, but what was the point? His mother and father would just repeat the whole process again, and he'd wind up right back at the train station, bound for Nebraska. Bound for Uncle Hank's and Aunt Gertrude's place....the general store...cousins Norbert and Virginia...
It all seemed like a bad dream to Seth, like something that wasn't supposed to be happening but was. However, in some ways he had expected something like this. Seth thought about all the angry words, the yelling that he had heard at night through the walls of the apartment when his mother and father fought with each other. He had known things weren't good between them for more than a year now. But even so, if someone had told him even two weeks earlier that he was going to spend most of 1910 in Nebraska, he'd have thought they were crazy.
Next Chapter: "The Trip West"