A Sampling of the First Chapter of: On the Rails, The Adventures of Boxcar Bertie,
A Historical Novel by Larry and Rosemary Mild
Chapter 1
Bertie's Homecoming

POVERTY, UNEMPLOYMENT, RAMPANT CRIME, and economic discord held a major stranglehold on the nation in the year 1936. Historians labeled the surrounding years the Great Depression. Only an unencumbered fortunate few escaped its tentacles. A number of individuals even chose to end it all, choosing death as an escape from the pain of life without privilege. Some took unfair advantage of the existing conditions, grabbing what they could illegally. Many took to the bottle, drowning and blurring away all their afflictions. Others shrank back, absorbing the punishment, depending on only The Almighty's intervention to save their ragged butts. The gallant mainstream fought back, doing with less, relying on their ingenuity, diligence, grit, and plain hard work, if they could find it, to bolster their strained existence. Bertie Patchet was just one young woman caught up in that horrific maelstrom.

Bertie Patchet grew up in a blue–collar family in the Hill section of New Haven, Connecticut. At age twenty-four, she was on the tall side–five–foot–ten and a solid 160 pounds, with a squarish, handsome face that looked almost manly. But make no mistake, this urban tomboy was all woman inside and out. A natural athlete, she excelled in any sport permitted to her gender. She had an appealing carefree look, with bobbed auburn hair that curled around her chin, eyes more hazel than the nut of the same name, and orange-brown freckles galore.

With the help of her mentoring high–school teacher, Bertie had won a three–year scholarship to Central Connecticut State Normal School to become a teacher. As a scholarship recipient, she was able to find part–time work in the school cafeteria. This job didn’t pay all that much, but it did cover her expenses and gave her a bit left over. She took advantage of that free schooling and employment to become an independent soul–or so she thought–for the first time in her life.

Bertie graduated with honors in June of 1936. On Graduation Day she headed home to an alcoholic mother and an abusive, sporadically employed stepfather. These were the nightmares she had intended to flee from ever since she was old enough to consider escape. But with her meager funds, where else could she turn but homeward?

The Great Depression began in 1929 and still held its ironclad grip on the nation. A woman with a bachelor's sheepskin couldn't necessarily find employment in dire times like these. A man would find it almost as difficult, but with more choices. So many occupations were closed to females by virtue of the existing culture of the times. Bertie's cherished independence now faced new challenges.

The ramshackle flatbed tobacco truck rumbled down the Berlin Turnpike toward the city of New Haven. Abe Merrill, the driver, was an elderly tobacco farmer. Clad in blue riveted bib overalls and a woven straw hat, he had kindly picked up a lone hitchhiker on the outskirts of New Britain. The widowed farmer craved a little company along the lonely road that wandered through broad fields wafting a pungent mix of cow manure and sun–drying tobacco leaves.

Abe's passenger, Bertie Patchet, sat next to the farmer in the doorless cab to his truck. Wearing a seersucker jumper over a white blouse, she attempted to chat with him as he made his way into the city, but his humble conversation was limited. She cringed a bit but hid her feelings while Abe complained about the drawn–out death of his wife a year earlier and the nasty pests that ate holes in his precious tobacco leaves. Mostly, though, he talked about the penny postcards from his twenty–something son who told of his adventures riding boxcars across the country. His son's exploits as a hobo mildly interested her. She had heard that a hobo was a homeless person who willingly traveled to find work; whereas a bum was a beggar adverse to working.

The flatbed truck slowed, left the pike in Westville for Whalley Avenue, and followed it all the way to Church Street in downtown New Haven. Abe coaxed the truck toward the railroad station and the loading docks nearby. They had reached the end of the line for Bertie. After her hearty thank–you and goodbye, she began the long walk up the hill from the station to the Patchet house. Or was it the Stoltz house now that her mom had married Frederick Stoltz?

The downstairs two–bedroom apartment in that gray, two-story house was the only place she had ever called home. She considered "home" to be the place of her birth and early years, the time with her real father, who died from pneumonia just before her fourteenth birthday. To steer clear of her hateful stepfather, Bertie used every excuse possible to avoid going home on weekends and school holidays. She missed her mother, or rather the woman Zelda Patchet once meant to her. Zelda was no longer the mother she knew, but an automaton subservient to the will of her husband.

After three years without showing up at their doorstep, Bertie wondered what kind of reception she would receive. Yes, she had sent postcards, and even phoned her mother birthday wishes, but scarcely anything else.

Bertie stopped out front at the great oak tree. Its invasive but tolerated roots had torn up the cement sidewalk in exchange for yielding abundent shade. She gazed at the house. The paint's faded and peeling now, and some roof shingles need to be replaced. I wonder about Mom and Fred, if the two of them have changed for the better. Oh well, I can hope, can't I? She climbed the six worn steps to the door and tried her key. It went in, but her key didn’t turn—a subtle unwelcoming message. Pressing the doorbell, she heard the dull ringing inside, then the sound of footsteps. The door swung open to reveal her weighty, barefoot stepfather in suspenders draped over a shabby tank shirt and unpressed pants. A bewildered look hung on his roundish face, as well as several days’ growth of graying beard stubble.

"Well, look who decided to come home to roost."

"Hello," Bertie said weakly, as she stepped across the threshold and left her one suitcase by the door.

Fred reached out to embrace her, but Bertie shuddered and sidestepped his arms in a well-practiced maneuver. His perplexed, hurt look turned to a stiff smile as she slipped past him.

He yelled, "Hey, Zelda. Youll never guess who’s showed up at our doorstep, hon. It's your long–lost lovin' daughter."

"Bertie, Bertie, oh my Bertie," Zelda called from the kitchen. Mother and daughter rushed to meet in full embrace in the middle of the dining room. "Let me look at you, darlin39;." Her hands went to Bertie’s shoulders and held her at arms’ length. "You look so filled-out and elegant. I missed you terribly, dear."

"Momma," said Bertie. "I graduated Normal School. I’m a full–fledged teacher now and I have my sheepskin to prove it. Now I can earn my own way."

But Zelda Stoltz seemed disinterested; her mind was not on her daughter's accomplishments. She licked her lips and swallowed repeatedly as though there was a thirst needing to be quenched. But a mere thirst couldn’t describe the alcohol addiction she had fallen into.

Stepping back, Bertie gave a searching once–over to her mother's degraded appearance—mousy brown hair in tangles, surely from weeks of neglect, dark rings beneath tired gray eyes, and the faded, grimy housecoat.

"What's wrong, Momma? Why are you neglecting yourself? You're unhappy. You've been drinking again!"

"Things ain't been so good for us lately, dear," said Zelda Patchet Stoltz. "Yeah, I take a drop of medicine now and then."

"Oh, Momma," said Bertie with watering eyes. "You're still boozing it up?"

"It helps when things ain't right," moaned Zelda, "so I cover it all up with a bit of tasty gin or rye or whatever is left in the house.”"

Bertie’s eyes darted about. "You know it will be the end of you yet. But why are you living this way? The house is filthy, and you both look like hell."

"My Fred, he lost his job and can’t find work anyplace. And I ain't so young any more. I know there ain't anything out there for me neither."

"Never mind you. Does he even look?" asked Bertie.

"He did for a while, but there's no use, so he gave up months ago," said Zelda. "You have no idea what it's like out there."

"I haven't exactly been hiding in a paper bag, you know. I'm aware of what's going on in the world. Fred should clean himself up and continue looking. It isn't fair to you.”

"It's none of your goddamn business what I do or don't do, missy," grunted Fred, eavesdropping from the kitchen.

"It sure is when it affects my momma," said Bertie. "But I'm not going to stand here and argue with you. All I want to do is make sure she's okay."

"Screw you," he mumbled under his breath.

Bertie spent the rest of the day doing chores: cleaning house, doing laundry, and making a trip to Pegnatarro's Grocery around the corner, so the icebox might yield something edible for supper. Putting the food away in the lower chamber, she recalled the icemen in rubber aprons, carrying monster ice cubes with huge scissoring tongs and depositing them in the upper chamber of the icebox. At Pegnatarro's she spent nearly all her personal cash out of her last pay envelope from the cafeteria job. The only things she bought for herself were three five–cent Baby Ruth candy bars.

While housecleaning, she came across her old camping backpack and a short camping hatchet with its hammerhead and cutting edge. Bertie deposited them next to her bed.

At suppertime she scrambled eggs and made toast for each of them. A hostile silence punctuated the meal. Still, Zelda helped with the dishes and cleanup afterward. Later, she and Bertie sat on the blue horsehair settee in the parlor while Fred kept adjusting the tuning dial on the tall RCA radio that stood on the floor. The music station kept drifting off tune as the newfangled tuning-eye indicator beam widened. Bertie always thought of that indicator as an evil eye, probably since her mother remarried.

Her old bedroom looked smaller than she remembered it, and some of her favorite posters had been taken down. But that night she fell into her bed exhausted. She slept soundly until near dawn, when a familiar squeak of her bedroom door's hinges jarred her awake. The door opened. A bulky silhouette appeared. As the dark figure came closer, Bertie knew who it was. The headlights of a passing car momentarily lit up the bedroom long enough for her to be sure. She already knew Fred's disgusting intentions. This morning wasn't the first time he'd attempted to assault her. His past failures didn't keep him from trying once more. His hand pulled back the covers as he stood beside her bed, with his naked beer belly overflowing his polka–dot boxer shorts.