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Daughter of the Cimarron

by Sam Hall

It’s 1928 … the Great Depression lurks just around the corner.

Divorcing a cheating husband means disgracing her family, but Claire Devoe can’t take it anymore. Forced to provide for herself, she travels the Midwest with a sales crew. Can she trust the God who didn’t save her first marriage to lead her through the maze of new love and overwhelming expectations? The long twilight of the Great Depression—with its debt, disgrace, drought, and despair—becomes the crucible that remakes her life.

Daughter of the Cimarron is the fictionalized tale of the author’s mother as she went from ragtime to breadlines, from the silent cities and melancholy towns to a dugout overlooking the Cimarron Canyon, from brokenness to strength.

Chapter 1

CLAIRE

Mama always said, “People put out stories to make themselves feel superior. Ignore the tales and the people who tell them.”

But I couldn’t ignore the envelope in my purse.

“Sunday driver!” My husband shook his fist at the car in front of us. Turning the steering wheel to the left, he pulled the throttle lever down. The engine revved faster as we moved beside the other car’s back bumper. A moment later, the car jolted.

Our ’26 Ford coupe jerked to the right and skidded into a shallow ditch beside Illinois Highway 3. No sound but the creaking of metal.

The car we’d been trying to pass kept on going.

Harold sat rigid as a post, knuckles ivory white over the steering wheel. My husband’s thick brown hair looked as if he’d combed it with an eggbeater. With a stream of curses, he swept his hair off his forehead.

“Are you all right?” Why had he taken such a risk? Did he want to die?

Harold shoved his door open and, without another look at me, stepped down.

I pushed against my door, but a barbed wire fence gleamed on the other side of the ditch so I scooted across the seat and followed him out.

He ducked to catch his reflection in the side window and commenced finger-combing his hair back in place. “Lookit that,” he muttered. “Clear in the ditch and stuck besides. How am I going to get this flivver back on the road?”

A battered red truck rolled to a stop beside us. The driver, a rangy farm hand with a gap-toothed grin, vaulted out. “Hey-ee. Close call. Everybody in one piece?”

I pulled myself upright. “I … I guess so. It was so quick, I—”

“Things can happen mighty fast. People driving thirty, forty miles an hour. Like maniacs. You coulda been killed.” He shook his head.

“What?” Harold puffed out his chest. “You didn’t see nothing. Who you think you are?”

The tall man’s smile faded. He seemed to be deciding whether to fling Harold over the fence or simply to leave.

I stumbled forward. “No. No, he didn’t mean it that way.” My voice caught. “Yes … you’re right. We should’ve been careful …”

“Claire, I did mean it that way!” Harold’s right eyelid twitched, a sign things could get out of control—quickly.

I wheeled between the two and grasped Harold’s arm. “Elmer expects us in St. Louis today. We need this man’s help. He didn’t intend disrespect.” I turned back to the farmer. “He’s … we’re just upset. That was very frightening. We’re so glad you stopped.”

The man stared at Harold, as if daring him to pop off again. Finally he got into the truck and backed up to our car. Within minutes, he’d hitched on to our coupe and pulled it up beside the pavement. He unhooked from the Ford and dropped down to look underneath. “That right tie rod’s bent. I’d get it fixed as soon as possible if I was you.” He directed the words at me, not Harold.

I reached into the car for my purse.

The farmer shook his head. “You don’t owe me nothin’. I’m glad to help you.” Without further ceremony, he climbed in his truck and chugged off.

***

My heart still beating double-time, I choked back tears. I wanted Harold to pull over and comfort me, but I knew better than to expect it. At least, he should’ve apologized for scaring me and nearly getting us both killed. No reason for him to drive that fast; he was always taking risks—as if he were more important than anyone else.

The crew at Deluxe Art Studio, where we worked selling enlargements and frames, knew what he was like. What they didn’t know, they made up. Rumors followed Harold like flies after a manure spreader.

He said they were all lies.

I didn’t know. I didn’t want to know.

Suddenly, the steering wheel vibrated with a thudding racket.

I grabbed the door handle. “Harold, that man said the tie rod’s bent. You should take this car straight to a shop.”

“That sounds like something your old man would do.”

“Don’t call him that.”

“He’s an old fossil. If he was the saint you make him out to be, he’d run his own house instead of telling other people what to do.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Don’t play dumb. You know your mama wears the pants in that house.”

I swallowed hard and blinked back tears.“We’re driving down the road in a wrecked car … and all you can do is insult my parents?”

“Buzz off, Claire. You’re giving me a headache. If we stop for a mechanic—if we could find one—we’d be lucky to make St. Louis by Monday.” He cocked his head to one side. “Hey, feel that?”

“What?”

“Exactly. You don’t feel nothing ’cause the shimmy is gone. Let me take care of the car. You keep still for a change.”

“That’s so … disrespectful.” Still fighting tears, I turned to the side window. After two years of marriage, I still didn’t know Harold Devoe. Not on the inside anyway. His response to the farmer who’d helped us was typical. Aside from the things that annoyed me—playing the big shot, trying to run other people’s lives like he ran mine, his brass, and his idea that a dimpled chin made him a lady-killer—he was a swindler. A self-centered cheat.

He wants trouble? I’ll give it to him. I reached into my purse and fingered the envelope the desk clerk had given me that morning.

“You know, Claire, you’d be a lost child if you didn’t have me around to look after things. Better to keep quiet so you don’t expose your ignorance. But here you are, telling me—a man—how to take care of a car.”

“You nearly got us killed.”

“That idiot wouldn’t give way. He could see I was trying to pass.”

“You had no business passing there.”

“You’re suddenly the authority on operating a motor car?”

“You won’t admit you made a mistake. I’ve done nothing—”

“Yeah, nothing but run your yap since we left Paducah.”

I gasped. “I have the right to speak. While we’re at it, why is it that Ferva seemed to be the only one who knew where you were last night?”

The car jerked slightly.

Caught him off guard. I touched the envelope again.“Well?”

He looked straight ahead. “You don’t let things go, do you? Always seeing things or making up stuff that never happened. I told you I was playing cards with Wiley and Spessord. Ferva came in with Wiley, but she left when we started a card game.” He slid the window open and held his arm out in the stream of air.

I raised my voice against the rush of wind. “Harold, you agreed not to gamble. We barely have money to cover expenses. And everyone knows Ferva’s reputation. Besides, she’s a grass widow.”

“So, she’s separated from that drunk. Is that so bad?”

“Not separated—divorced. She’s a divorced woman.”

“That really bothers you, doesn’t it?”

Yes, it does. “What bothers me is you being around her. I—”

“I was not around her.” Harold held his mouth half-open, his upper lip curled.

I hated that look. “That’s not what I heard.”

“Well, you’ve been listening to the wrong people on the crew.”

Harold always had a smart answer no matter what I said. My chest tightened like it had when I got lost out in the pasture, only five years old, sure the coyotes would get me. I was never so glad to see Pop.

I couldn’t imagine Harold ever coming to rescue me. More like he was only waiting for an opportunity to leave, to end it. I couldn’t let that happen.

Harold glowered at the road. “No matter what I say, you won’t believe me.”

Without looking down, I grasped the envelope and pulled out the newspaper clipping. My hand shook, but finally I had proof of something. I held the clipping up. “Can you explain this?”

Harold pulled his eyes from the highway and squinted. “What’s that? Give it here.”

I jerked back. “It’s Ness County Court Notices—from the paper.”

The Ness County News? They make up most of their stuff. You’re awfully naïve if you believe anything in that rag.”

“They don’t make up court notices.”

“What do you know about the legal system? Who sent that drivel anyway?”

It so happened, I’d learned too much about the legal system since I’d married him. “The letter didn’t have a return address.”

“Oh, yeah. I’ll bet you know who sent it. And what’s it supposed to be about?”

“It’s about you, Harold.”

His mouth drew into a hard line and the color drained from his face.

I’d rehearsed my little speech at least twenty times. Once I began, my words came out like marbles pouring from a can. “It’s a paternity suit, Harold. Claims you’re the father of a little girl born last month. A child that was conceived when …” I gripped my purse. “When we were in Ness City last year. It’s true, isn’t it?” Amazed at my outward calm, I leaned back.

His eyelid twitched—three or four times.

I couldn’t let this die on the vine. Something had to come from it, as clear-cut as Mama’s world that divided truth into neat little patchwork blocks of black and white.

The steering wheel shuddered again in Harold’s hands. More swearing.

“Aren’t you going to answer me? What do you have to say about this paper?”

“I don’t have nothing to say about it because it’s a pack of lies.” He sounded like a little dog barking. “If you believe that claptrap, you better go soak your head. Just because some gold digger files a lawsuit doesn’t mean a hill of beans. And you treat it like gospel. From someone you don’t even know.”

Gold digger? I hadn’t thought of that. But I’d play this out. Anyhow, there was no gold to be dug from Harold. “I didn’t say I don’t know who sent it. I only said it didn’t have a return address. It’s Gar’s handwriting.”

He snickered. “Gar? Your cockeyed brother? He just wanted to get a dig at you by spreading gossip about me. And you fell for it.”

“Don’t change the subject.” Yeah, that would be like Gar. I took a deep breath. “I deserve an explanation. This didn’t appear out of thin air, or it wouldn’t be in the newspaper.”

He turned serious, expression as flat as the Illinois horizon. “I’m telling you, Claire, there’s nothing to that article. If I’d known about that suit, it would already be dismissed.”

“Oh, really?” Such a liar.

Harold didn’t move his gaze from the road ahead. Smooth as cream, he said, “No one with an ounce of sense would believe those out-and-out lies. That’s some desperate dame trying to get ahold of your dad’s money—through me. Why don’t you throw that piece of paper in the garbage? I’d never betray you. You mean too much to me, sugar. This hurts, that you’d think I’m that kind of man. I got my faults, honey, but I’d never cheat on you. You believe me, don’t you?”

Harold had done bad things, but he called them “misunderstandings.”

Yet if I could not believe him, that would mean the end of the marriage. I’d never be a mother.

He stroked my arm with his free hand, fingers sliding to the tips of my own.

My arm trembled. I looked away and stared at the roadside. Green fields, baking in the hot sun, flowed past as far as I could see. So much like back home, in western Kansas. I pinched the clipping between my fingers. Some way, I had to find out which spoke the truth—the newspaper or Harold.

Chapter 2

The rattle of a key sounded through the transom. I turned from the closet, hanger in hand, and edged past the double bed. About time Harold got here. I unlocked the door and peered out just in time to see a woman go in an adjoining room. I spun back into the room and flung the hanger.

It clanged off the cast iron headboard and skittered across the floor.

Another look out the window to the Union Station tower clock. St. Louis was a big town, but it shouldn’t take him three hours to drop off the car and catch a streetcar back here.

Elmer Hall was getting tired of Harold’s excuses. Made me look undependable too.

Suspicion fogged my mind.

Only traffic noises outside and the thud of my heart competed with silence in the room.

No. Can’t let the negatives get me down. I grabbed Harold’s suitcase and heaved it onto the bed. After undoing the straps, I flipped back the lid. Striped pajamas lay entwined with the white shirts and trousers I’d carefully pressed. I could only stare at the wrinkled mess.

He’d expect me to re-iron all of it. Where was the justice in that?

I flung it over a chair.

A paper fluttered out like a disturbed moth and settled on the floor.

With a sweep of my hand, I snatched it up.

A racing form dated exactly a week previous, Saturday, July 7, 1928. On the back, Harold’s careless scribble—two words, “St. Lou,” and what looked to be a phone number.

His ironing could wait.

I fluffed my hair. A few dabs from the powder-puff took care of my face, as well as the white splotches on my neck and left elbow. Doc Lane had called that vitiligo. Said it was inherited but harmless.

Yeah, but he didn’t have to put up with the stares I got.

I slid my feet into the Mary Janes I’d bought in Memphis. A walk along the promenade would clear my mind and there’d be plenty of time to get back before dark.

Not that it would make any difference to Harold.

As I swept through the lobby, I gave it a quick scan. Would’ve been fun to have my friend Geneva join me. But there was no one but Spessord and Frank Wiley.

Frank rose when he saw me.

Uh-oh, I don’t want to talk about Harold. I waved and hurried out the door. Soon I was simply another tourist strolling along the river. I’d enjoy my walk, even if it was just by my lonesome. Pop always said one may have to wait till evening to know how splendid the day has been.

Several blocks east, there it was, the biggest river in America. People swarmed the space. Vendors hawked sweets, hot dogs, and souvenirs. A dance marathon was underway, complete with a three-piece band. The last four couples leaned against their partners like broken fence posts. Beyond, acrobats and a skinny juggler performed.

A magician lit up when I slowed to watch his show. “Hey, beautiful, I need an assistant for my next trick. How would you like to be a star?”

Not interested in having a strange man pawing me, I backed away and attached myself to a group of tourists.

A red-haired boy thrust a handbill in my face.

Immediately, I thought of the racing form in Harold’s suitcase.

Gambling every chance he gets. I’d like to know what that phone number is about. Harold’s no planner, but he’s a schemer.

Afternoon shadows slanted across the promenade. The tourists paused to watch small boys toss bread crumbs at a mallard hen and ducklings.

Time for me to go find my supper too. I turned back toward the hotel and detoured through a neighborhood showing its age.

Strains of “Who’s Sorry Now?” floated from a doorway. Two colored men sat on the front fenders of a sedan, giving women the eye.

I quickened my pace and cut across the street toward the opposite sidewalk. As I maneuvered between cars angle-parked at the curb, dampness touched my foot. First time I’d worn my new shoes and I’d stepped right into a pool of water that darkened the pavement.

I stepped back, pulled off my shoe, and wiped my foot against my other calf.

The puddle of liquid ran toward a black coupe on my left. Its front fender looked like an accordion and the headlight sat askew on its mount.

My breath caught.

A crocheted green and white shawl lay behind the passenger seat—exactly like the one Mama had given me. I didn’t have to check the license plate. It was our car. I looked around, my breath held like a cracked egg.

To the left, a high porch and turret dominated a three-story Victorian house. Red velvet curtains covered the windows. The place reeked of evil, of Baal-worship and lewd secrets. Other houses like it stood down the way. Seedy shops and vacant lots with knee-high weeds had overtaken the area. A locust rasped overhead.

I jumped. In all my twenty-two years … Relax, Claire, you’ll be all right. My blouse felt like a wet mop on my back. I took a deep breath and finally stopped trembling. I checked the angle of the sun again. Still time to get back before dark. An alcove offered a place to watch the Ford and the house with the velvet curtains.

What would I say if Harold showed up that minute?

Around the corner, a blatting saxophone vied with a honky-tonk piano for attention. The sidewalk filled with tourists but no sign of my husband.

A door opened on the alley side of the big house, and a heavyset man stepped out. He glanced both ways, pulled his hat brim down, and rounded the far corner. Minutes later, a small man slipped out the same door and disappeared down the alley like a leaf in the wind.

More men left the house as I waited, one every few minutes.

Bunch of saps. I couldn’t tell where they entered the place, as only one man, maybe a tourist, took the front steps and rapped on the paneled door.

He probably had a wife waiting too.

After several minutes, the door opened a crack, then widened, and a woman wearing satiny blue waved him in.

Street lights flickered on. Shadows overlapped the sidewalk and filled the recessed openings of the shops. Two men walked by and gave me a look.

I felt like a cornered rat, but they kept on going. They’d likely be back. I almost bolted.

Maybe this is crazy. It was at least twenty minutes back to the hotel. I’d wait five more minutes. Maybe ten. No reason for our car to be parked on this street. Not a repair garage in sight. But these houses—I know what they are …

A hoarse giggle brought my attention across the street.

A man and woman, arms draped around one another in a disgusting way, weaved toward the Ford. The man stumbled a couple times and his shirt tail flapped below his coat. His boater concealed his face. But there was no mistaking who it was.

Harold.

With a hussy I’d never seen before.

Instinctively, I covered my eyes. Electrical impulses of pain arched across my forehead to my temples. I gasped and tears streamed down my face. I couldn’t stop it, and my nose began to run.

Somehow, I had to get myself together to confront him. Otherwise, he’d brush it off as mistaken identity; say I was all wrought up again, imagining things.

I slipped out of the shadows and stopped in front of the coupe.

Harold escorted that “lady” to my place.

As he sidled around the car, smirking, I caught a whiff of booze.

He stopped about four feet away and started running his mouth. “Why doncha move, lady?” Then he looked me full in the face. He backed away and flailed one arm as if to keep from tipping over. His lips puckered and he looked like a dying goldfish, its face at the surface of the water, eyes round with panic.

Where I got the strength, I don’t know, but I yelled, “Get her out of that car!”

Ten people or so circled around us as if they knew something was about to happen.

Harold stuck out his hands like he expected me to lay a slice of forgiveness in each palm. “You don’t understand, Claire. It’s not what you think—”

“Get her out!” I stuck my finger in his face. “Now!”

Harold jumped like a puppet on a rubber band. He tripped to the passenger door and pulled that hussy out of the front seat like she was on fire.

The woman’s rouged cheeks flamed even redder. She jerked loose and backed against the fender, glaring at him. “Dahling, do you have to leave now? Don’t forget our agreement.” She stuck out her hand, voice now hard as a hammer. “Two dollars, mister. Right here.”

I’d never seen Harold in such a pinch. Like that time Gar pinned a garden snake to the ground with his boot. Its tail had squirmed awful, like it knew it was a goner.

Harold thrust a bill at the woman.

She snatched it out of his hand and hissed, “Where’s the rest, buster?”

Someone snickered.

A woman called out, “Pay her what you owe her, big shot.”

I felt faint.

Harold wilted, hands shaking, but he pulled out another bill and tossed it at the floozy. He whipped around and elbowed through the crowd. Then he staggered back toward the curb, shuffled between parked cars, and ran across the street.

The tears came again. I didn’t try to stop them.

Women’s voices came from somewhere. What they said, I couldn’t hear over my sobs, but I knew they cared. I wiped my tears away. Once my vision cleared, two bleached blondes, smiling like rescue angels, came into focus.

They drove me back to the hotel and seemed as upset as I was. The one with the orange lipstick said, “I could tell he was a rat. He’s not even smart. That tramp looked like a cow, honey. You wanna make him pay—really pay—before you let him back.”

The other was indignant. “I wouldn’t have him back! He doesn’t deserve someone as nice as you. He ain’t got no class.”

They brought me through the hotel lobby as if I were the Queen of Sheba.

The night clerk raised up from his chair behind the lobby desk, but they gave him a look that would stop a clock, and he handed over the room key without a whimper. They escorted me to my room.

“Thank you. I’ll be all right.”

After hugs, they left.

And returned minutes later with the extra room key.

Miss Lipstick said, “We want to make sure Prince Charming doesn’t disturb your sleep.”

We hugged again and then they were gone.

After the door clicked shut, I leaned against the wall for a long time. Not crying, though. I’d shed enough tears over my marriage and its long, rutted road. Instead of confronting Harold, I’d smiled my way past the warning signs and potholes of his deceit. Half the time, we were off on one of his impulsive detours. He went; I followed. I’d lost track of who I was. Could I ever find myself again?

That court notice from Gar had taken off my blinders. Gar meant to hurt me, but he’d done me a favor. No way could I pretend everything was okay now. Even if it meant giving up my dream—a home, a husband who cared for me, and, most of all, children of my own.

That had never been Harold’s dream.

But I wasn’t yet done with that sneak. He’d come back, give me a big line about mistakes and misunderstandings and how it would never happen again. I would be expected to pretend our marriage was back on track … and I wouldn’t have to explain a divorce to Mama.

Mama said God forgave sins. She also said he hated divorce. Maybe it was too extreme for God’s mercy. Again and again, I’d asked the Almighty to adjust Harold’s attitude. As far as I could tell, God had more important things to fix than my marriage.

A chill shook my shoulders. What was done was done. I’d have to learn to sell on my own. The marriage was over. I pictured Mama telling me she understood. The thought stuck, a fish bone in the throat, and I knew.

Mama would not understand.

Divorce could ruin an entire family. People talked. And how could Pop stand before the church as Sunday school superintendent, proclaiming God’s holiness? Everyone would know his sweet daughter lost her marriage.

No way would they let me back in the house after that.

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