In those days, in the days when Helen Stillman had first discovered Mr. Wodehouse, Harvester was a little prairie town with no public library. A capacious bookcase stood in the lobby of the Water and Power Company. Never mind that there was no power to speak of. Harvester was a village of hopes and pretensions.
People who could spare a book or a periodical left one at the Water and Power Company for others to borrow and return. Eventually the shelves swooned and creaked beneath the weight of books piled there by the Lundeens — first Juliet and Laurence Lundeen and later their son and daughter-in-law, George and Cora, all of them great readers, the younger Lundeens great travelers as well.
At age 32, Helen was a widowed third grade teacher with a nine-year-old son, Hillyard or Hilly, as he was known to most, and an early menopause. At any rate, based on a good deal of conflicting information from unreliable sources, she thought she’d begun an early menopause.
She and Hilly lived in a cramped four-room apartment above Rabel’s Meat Market across from the post office. And though they doted on each other, life was nonetheless skimpy.
Now, on an October afternoon when the air was extravagant with the scent of bonfires and apples, Helen and Hillyard walked home from school together, stopping at the Water and Power Company on their way. On a high shelf Helen spied Love Among The Chickens by someone named P.G. Wodehouse, a book left there by the young Lundeens returning from their 1909 Atlantic crossing.
Helen sighed, “Yes, of course,” as she pulled the book down, though she didn’t know what she meant by those words. And while nine-year-old Hilly leafed through an illustrated Wild West magazine, Helen opened the volume at random and read.
Later, dawdling along Main Street casting an eye into store windows at goods she couldn’t afford, a warmth not attributable to menopause rose up through her. She giggled and patted her handbag, feeling the rectangular heft of the book. An irrational and girlish spasm of giddiness shook her and her hand fluttered to her throat. Love Among The Chickens.
Mr. Wodehouse, as it turned out, was the antidote to menopause. He was delicious. Lighter than air. Generous to a fault. He made her laugh as no man ever had. He wrote only for her.
His rhythms, the way his wit kissed a phrase and sent it dancing, these warmed her like summer. She laughed aloud and fell in love again and again. She hadn’t know that this was what life needed, this laughter, this seduction.
In her life she had never stolen anything, but she did not return Love Among The Chickens to the Water and Power Company, and she nurtured the secret guilt like a rare botanical specimen, exotic and heady. Hers was the guilt of a woman in the grip of clandestine love.
Three years after Love Among The Chickens, The Swoop by the same Mr. Wodehouse appeared on the shelves at the Water and Power Company. Like the earlier Wodehouse volume, this one remained captive in the apartment above Rabel’s Meat Market for more than fifty years. And The Swoop was followed by…but the story actually begins in July of 1900.