Dorthea stood on the sidewalk in front of a single story stucco house painted a pale shade of blue with white trim. A silver Ford Pinto was parked in the driveway that ran past the side of the house to a small garage at the back of the property.
“This is it,” Kim said after comparing the numbers painted on the front door to the ones on the piece of paper she held. “Let’s go,” she urged Dorthea who hung back.
“What if no one is home?”
“There’s a car in the driveway and I can see someone moving around inside. Come on. We haven’t come this far to stop now.”
Dorthea took a hesitate step toward the house. “Gawd, I hope this isn’t a mistake,” she murmured.
“It isn’t,” Kim said confidently, walking up to the front door where she waited for Dorthea to catch up. When Dorthea joined her on the concrete stoop, she pushed the button for the doorbell.
Diane Hartling pushed the oven door shut, the casserole having been placed on a shelf inside moments before the doorbell rang. “I swear I’m going to sew the house key into that boy’s pocket,” she muttered as she walked out of the kitchen. She crossed the living room and yanked open the front door. “Peter, how many times—.” She stopped abruptly when she saw not Peter but two women standing on the porch. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she stammered, embarrassed by her less than friendly greeting. “I thought you were my son… he forgets his key a lot,” she explained to the strangers. “Can I… um… help you?” she asked after neither woman made an effort to explain their reason for ringing her doorbell.
Dorthea started to speak then froze, unsure as to what to say.
“Are you Diane Hartling?” Kim asked, allowing Dorthea time to gather her thoughts. Diane nodded. “My name is Kim Chadwick and this is my friend, Dorthea Sanborn.” Diane smiled tentatively as she acknowledged the introductions. “This is going to sound rather strange,” Kim continued, “but we are looking for the man who sold this house to you.”
“May I ask why?”
“This is the strange part,” Kim said nervously. “We believe he may be Dorthea’s father.”
Diane studied the women for several moments then stepped back from the doorway. “Please come in.”
Kim nudged Dorthea forward before following her inside.
“Please,” Diane said indicating they were to sit on the couch at the side of the room. “I just made a fresh pot of coffee, would you like some?”
“I’d love a cup,” Kim readily agreed. “I’m sure Dorthea would, too.”
“I’ll be right back.”
As Diane walked into the kitchen, Kim turned her attention to Dorthea. “Hey,” she said softly, placing a concerned hand on Dorthea’s leg. “You okay?”
“Yes. Just super nervous.”
Kim laughed. “Me, too.”
“At least, you managed to say something. I just couldn’t get my tongue to work.”
Kim squeezed her leg with a reassuring touch. “It’s working now.”
“Do you think she knows where he is?”
Kim shrugged. “I don’t know. But I doubt she invited us in just to sample her coffee.”
Diane returned with three empty mugs, a sugar bowl, and a coffee pot. She set the mugs and sugar bowl on the coffee table in front of the women then filled the cups. “I believe the formal way to serve this would be on a silver tray,” she said lightly, “but we’re a little more laid back out here.” She handed a mug of steaming coffee to Kim then slid the bowl of sugar toward her. “Please help yourself,” she said as she handed a second mug to Dorthea who smiled her appreciation in return. She set the pot on the table within easy reach of the pair and picked up the third mug to carry it across and sit in a comfortable chair positioned opposite the couch.
Kim looked quizzically at Diane. “Please don’t take this wrong but you’re being awfully accepting of… well, of us.”
Diane nodded again. “I guess you could say I’m not surprised by you appearing at my door.”
“You were expecting us?” Dorthea asked.
“Me? No. But Poppa has always been expected something… Or someone.”
“I’m confused,” Kim admitted.
“Let me see if I can explain,” Diane said settling back into the thick cushions of the chair. “I met Paul Bingham a little more than twenty years ago. I was nineteen, living on the streets, and I had a baby. Paul worked in a bookstore in Torrance—that’s not too far from here. I spent a lot of time there. The owner had a few chairs and couches in the store and encouraged his customers to enjoy their comfort as they considered books to purchase. I had no money to buy books but being inside where it was warm and dry was a lot better then spending the day in some alley.” She laughed remembering her long days amongst the book shelves. “I did a lot of reading back then. Anyway, to make a long story short, Paul took an interest in me. He offered to help me get back on my feet… but his offer didn’t come without conditions.”
Diane paused to enjoy another sip of coffee.
“He said if I would go back to school and finish my education he would take care of me and my baby. Give us a place to live and provide food, clothing, and proper medical care. I agreed and moved in here with Paul. Don’t get any wrong ideas, it was strictly platonic. Paul was never less than a gentleman and he treated me and my son better than I could have asked. He even paid for both of us to go to college.”
“You bought the house from him?” Dorthea asked.
Diane smiled as a memory rushed forward. “That was the only time we ever really fought about anything. Poppa wanted to give me the house but I told him I could pay for it and I was determined to do just that. After all he had done for me and Peter, I felt it was only fair to give some back to him. It took a lot of convincing but he finally relented and agreed.”
“You call Paul Poppa?”
“He was the closest I ever came to having a father.” Diane’s smile faded, replaced by a look of sadness.
Disturbed by Diane’s sudden change in demeanor, Dorthea asked, “What happened to Paul? Did he move away?”
“No, he’s still here. The exchange of ownership of the house didn’t change the fact that over the years, we had become almost as close as a real family.”
“Almost?” Kim asked.
“There was always a… I’m not sure how you would describe it but a sense of distance between us. It’s was more so between him and Peter—not that he ever mistreated Peter; he just never seemed to want to get too close with him. I think it must have had something to do with what happened before he moved here.”
Dorthea’s and Kim’s interest immediately perked up. “What happened?!” they asked in unison.
Diane gazed questioningly at the pair. “Where did you say you were from?”
“Oh, my god!”
“Please!” Dorthea cried out. “Is Paul here?”
Diane placed her cup on the table beside the chair then stood. She beckoned for Dorthea and Kim to follow her. “He’s probably awake by now,” she said quietly. “Please keep your voices low, loud noises can startle him,” she whispered as she walked into a hallway. She led them to a door then carefully pushed it open. “Did you have a good nap, Poppa?”
Dorthea stood on her tiptoes and craned her neck to see over Diane’s shoulder and into the room.
“Is it time?” an elderly man asked when Diane entered the room. He was lying in a bed covered by brightly colored quilts. The room’s window was open a few inches, its curtains fluttering on the cooling breeze that sneaked through the gap.
“Not quite time for dinner, Poppa,” Diane said as she walked to the window and closed it. “It’s getting a little too cool in here, don’t you think? Don’t want you catching cold.”
“Who are you?” Paul asked Dorthea who was now standing just inside the room.
“Her name is Dorthea,” Diane answered. “She has come to see you.”
Uninterested in Diane’s comment, Paul said, “I want to go for my walk.”
“Peter isn’t home yet,” Diane told him. “He must be working late.”
“I want to go for my walk,” Paul repeated, this time more forcefully.
“You will, just as soon as Peter gets home. I’m sure he’ll be home soon. He knows how much you like your walks, Poppa.” Diane motioned Dorthea and Kim out of the room.
“Who are you?” Paul asked Dorthea again.
“Dorthea,” she replied and moved a step closer to the bed.
“Are you from the bookstore?”
“No. I’m from Iowa. Do you remember Iowa?”
“I’m sure we have a book about that. You should look in the travel section.”
Diane stepped beside Dorthea and placed a hand on her arm. “He’s getting confused. We should go,” she said persuasively.
“Is it time for my walk?”
“Soon, Poppa, soon.” Diane gently moved Dorthea toward the door.
Dorthea spun around. “My, god,” she exclaimed. “He knows me.”
Diane gave Dorthea a sympathetic look before returning to the side of the bed. “Poppa, you shouldn’t yell like that. You’ll frighten our guests.”
“I want to go for my walk, Esther.”
Diane sat on the edge of the bed. “I know you do,” she said soothingly. She turned toward the door where Kim was supporting a shocked Dorthea, her face drained of all color. “Please,” she whispered, “wait for me in the living room.” Kim nodded then gently but forcefully guided Dorthea out of the room. “Poppa, why did this have to happen to you?” she asked more to herself than to the unaffected man in the bed. She sighed and lovingly brushed Paul’s hair back off his forehead. “Rest now,” she murmured as his eyes closed.
Wrapped in protective arms, Dorthea was leaning against Kim when Diane returned to the living room. “He knew me?” she asked in a shaky voice.
Diane shook her head. “I’m sorry. I should have warned you. Ever since he started having problems, he calls me Esther.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Kim asked.
“The doctors call it dementia. They say his mind is messed up, he doesn’t know the difference between now and memories anymore.”
“He said Esther,” Dorthea insisted.
“I always assumed it was his wife’s name.”
“His daughter,” Kim corrected.
“But your name is Dorthea?”
“It’s the name I was called by the woman who raised me. I don’t think it’s my real name.”
“Then you are his daughter?” Diane asked with more than a touch of disbelief in her voice.
Tears flowed down Dorthea’s cheeks. “I don’t know,” she cried, covering her face with her hands as Kim tightened her hold.
Diane was taken aback by the emotional response. “You don’t know?”
“We were hoping Paul would tell us,” Kim explained as she comforted Dorthea. “Could we have a wet cloth?” she asked.
“Of course.” Diane hurried back down the hallway then reappeared several minutes later with a wet washcloth that she handed to Kim before retreating back to her chair.
“What do you know of Paul’s life before you met him?” Kim asked Diane while Dorthea wiped the tears from her face.
“Not very much, he rarely spoke of it. I know he was from Iowa and I’m sure he must have been married but something happened to separate them. I asked him once why he insisted on staying here… in this house. He said he wanted her to be able to find him. I got the impression that this address was known to someone and that’s why he was always expecting a letter.”
“My guess was his wife. What happened? Do you know?”
“He did have a wife… and daughter. They lived in Cedarwood, that’s a small town in Iowa. In 1938, a tornado destroyed most of the town. Paul’s wife disappeared in the storm. It was assumed that she had been swept up by the tornado. Her body was never found.”
Diane looked stunned. “That’s awful. Poppa must have blamed himself for not being able to save her.”
“I’m sure he did,” Kim agreed. “But there was little he could have done. When it happened, he was several miles away at a store he owned in another town, Kalona.”
“His daughter survived?”
“We think so,” Kim answered, loosening her arms from around a now composed Dorthea.
“I don’t understand.”
Dorthea picked up the story. “A young girl, no more than five years old, the same age as Paul’s daughter, was pulled from the wreckage of the house and taken to the closest hospital which also happened to be in Kalona. She was treated for her injury; a piece of wood had punctured her leg, and was put into a room to wait for her family to claim her.”
“Didn’t Paul do that?”
“Ah,” Kim said, “that’s where the story gets really confusing.”
“Before Paul could get to her,” Dorthea continued, “she was taken from the hospital by two men who claimed to be her uncles.”
Kim shook her head. “We don’t think so.”
“Who were they?”
“No one knows for sure but one of them was identified by someone working at the hospital that day as a goon who worked for the local mobster.”
“It was the nineteen thirties, every town in the mid-west had someone who thought they were the next Al Capone,” Kim explained.
“Of course,” Diane said, not quite believing what she was hearing. “What happened to the girl?”
“She was never seen again,” Dorthea answered. “At least, not in Kalona.” She rubbed her temples in what she knew to be a useless attempt to stave off the migraine building inside her head.
Diane peered at Dorthea. “So what makes you think you’re this girl?”
“I think,” Kim cut in, “we need to shorten this up or we’ll be here all day.” She smiled understandingly at Dorthea who made no effort to regain control of the story. “Dorthea was raised by a woman who claimed to be her aunt but wasn’t,” Kim stating as she held up one finger on her left hand. “This woman’s maiden name is the same as the goon that kidnapped the girl from the hospital.” She uncurled a second finger. “The goon was the muscle for a man who, it was rumored, Paul owed money.” Another finger uncurled. “Dorthea is the same age Esther would be today if she were alive.” A fourth finger was raised. “And,” Kim unfurled her thumb, “Dorthea has a scar that matches the description of Esther’s injuries.”
“Sounds convincing,” Diane said half-heartedly.
“But,” Dorthea interjected. “We still don’t know for sure.”
“And you were hoping Paul could fill in the blanks,” Diane offered. Both women nodded. “I’m so sorry. Maybe a few years ago he might have been able to but now… most of the time he doesn’t even know who he is.”
Kim and Dorthea slumped back against the couch.
“All this time,” Dorthea muttered, “wasted.”
Kim’s feelings reflected her friend’s frustration. She sat up and reclaimed her coffee cup taking a swallow of the now cold liquid it held. She set the cup down then looked at Diane. “I know we have no right to ask but does Paul have any mementoes or papers from before?”
Diane took a moment to think back over all the years she had shared a house with the man in the bedroom. “There’s a picture,” she finally said. “I saw him holding it once, years ago. He told me it wasn’t of any importance but I knew it had to mean something to him. I could tell by the way he was looking at it. I thought he had gotten rid of it but I found it recently when I was going through some of his old clothes. Let me get it.”
Kim looked back over her shoulder at Dorthea. “What are you thinking?” she asked seeing the contemplative look on the face she loved.
Dorthea looked up at Kim and smiled. “I’m thinking what Aunt Faye is going to say when we tell her all we found out was a bunch of nothing.”
Kim grinned and leaned back to sit with her shoulder touching Dorthea’s. “She’ll probably say that we should have used the money this trip cost to buy her some more magazines.”
Dorthea chuckled. “She does love her magazines.”
“Almost as much as I love you.”
Dorthea blushed but was preventing from responding by Diane’s reappearance.
“I don’t know if this will help,” Diane said apologetically handing the framed photo to Dorthea.
Dorthea held the fragile wood frame in her hands. The black and white photograph showed a man and woman standing in front of a house still under construction. The obviously pregnant woman stood slightly in front of the man who had his arms wrapped around her waist, both were happily smiling for the camera.
“When I saw that I thought maybe that was why he took me under his wing,” Diane said. “She probably isn’t much older than I was when I met Paul. I must have reminded him of what he lost.”
Dorthea turned the frame over. “Do you think it’s Paul?” she asked disappointed to find the brown paper on the back of the frame blank of any writing.
“It sure looks like a younger version of the Paul I met. Today, you can’t really see the resemblance but back then…”
“They must have had it taken when they decided to buy the house,” Kim offered.
Dorthea handed the picture back to Diane. “Thank you for showing it to us.”
“Do you want to keep it? He won’t know it’s gone.”
Dorthea shook her head. “No.”
Kim was surprised by the response. “But—”
“Without knowing for sure, it’s just a picture of a happy couple,” Dorthea explained. “Just another reminder of what I don’t know. Besides, you’re his daughter now.” She pushed herself up from the couch. “I think we’ve taken up enough of your time,” she said extending her hand out to Diane. “Thank you. Thank you for everything.”
“I wish I… I’m sorry Paul isn’t… I wish I knew more.”
“It wasn’t all for naught. We did find Paul. Does he…? Do you need…?”
Diane held her hands up waving them in protest. “Paul lived a frugal life. With what he saved and the money I paid him for the house, we have more than enough to see to his needs.”
Dorthea smiled. “I’m glad.” She turned to Kim who was now standing beside her. “Shall we go?”
“If you’re ready.”
“Do you want me to… I mean, I’ll be happy to write and keep you informed—”
“Thank you but no. You’re his family.” Dorthea bent down to retrieve her purse from the floor. “To be honest,” she continued after straightening upright, “I just don’t know… I’m so… I just think it’s better to not know. Thank you,” she said then walked around the coffee table and headed for the door.
Kim watched Dorthea open the front door and stride out onto the porch and down the steps.
“Is she all right?” Diane asked.
“She will be. Thank you.”
“I’m sorry it wasn’t what she wanted.”
“Me, too. If something does come up with Paul that you think she should know, you can reach me at—”
“Hang on, let me get a notepad from the kitchen.”
Kim wrote her name, address, and phone number on the pad Diane retrieved. Then she bid her goodbye and rushed outside to catch up with Dorthea who was walking briskly down the sidewalk.
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