An Absence So Great
OneSetting Things RightMilwaukee, Wisconsin, four months earlier
JESSIE GAEBELE’S THOUGHTS AT TIMES behaved like a toddler’s: one moment they stayed safely hidden in the pump organ’s shadow, and the next minute they popped up to pull out all the stops, increasing in volume, shouting in her head, underscoring the aching loneliness that defined her days.
Today, as she stood in this men’s refuge permeated by the scent of oil and grease and gasoline, she flicked away those toddler voices. She had good reasons to be here. She was eighteen years old, it was 1910, and young women alone were going places they’d never gone before. She didn’t need to be embarrassed or afraid. Why had she come to Milwaukee if not to prove to herself and others that she could make wise choices and pursue a dream? One day she’d have her own photographic studio back in Winona, Minnesota, where her family lived. Her future beckoned, but she would return only when she’d proven to herself that she was in control of her heart.
“It might be best if you had your father look at it, Fräulein,” the proprietor cautioned.
“I’m not purchasing it for my father,” Jessie told him, a man her father’s age she guessed.
“Ach, I’m sorry. You look so young. Your husband then.”
Jessie took a deep breath. “It’s for my own use.”
The proprietor’s eyes widened. “Ah, well, do you have”—he looked over her small frame—“the stamina to make such a purchase? Riding an Emblem’s not like riding a bicycle or a horse, if you know what I mean.”
She didn’t know how to ride an Emblem or a Pierce or any other kind of motorcycle. She didn’t know where she’d learn or practice, or where she’d keep it once she figured out a way to afford the gas. But it was the perfect accoutrement, so much more distinctive than a certain kind of hat or a new pair of shoes. Jessie needed inspiration with fall closing in on her, the days soon shortening into long, lonely nights. Winter always made her dreary, and this first one away from her family promised to weigh her down like the pile of wool quilts on the bed that she no longer shared with her sisters.
“I’m a photographer,” Jessie told him, “and stronger than I look. I have my own income too. I assure you that I can afford to buy it.” This wasn’t quite the truth, but close. She planned to pay small portions each month. She’d read that some businesses did that now, calling it credit,
from a Latin word meaning “to believe.” The proprietor had to believe she would make the payment.
“Take a closer look then, Fräulein,” the man told her, moving aside so she could step closer.Don’t do it. Don’t do it.
She was here in this motorcycle shop because she’d seen the Milwaukee Journal
photographer, Robert Taylor, making good use of such transportation. Unlike the Winona newspaper, the Journal
printed photographs not just of disasters like the fire at the flour mill but of everyday things: people picnicking, ships easing along the Milwaukee River, the country’s first kindergarten class. Studio shots they weren’t. Nor were they tramp photographs, as Fred referred to photographs taken outside of the staged, controlled setting of a proper studio. To Jessie, spontaneous photographs of everyday life demonstrated the vibrancy of a people and a place. It was the kind of photography Jessie preferred, a view of the world through a commonplace lens, reminding her that ordinary ways were worthy of remembering.
As a photographer, one needed to be distinctive, and that certainly made Robert Taylor so: his motorcycle, and the blue and white polka-dot cravat he always wore. A photograph of him had brought her to this place. Art did move people, Jessie thought wryly.
This purchase would allow her to get out into the countryside, where the fields and trees and streams of this southern Wisconsin landscape would fill the void she’d brought with her. Would Fred approve? She shook her head. Forgetting Fred was another reason she’d come to Milwaukee. Fred.
She would not give up control of her feelings to imagine a life that could never be. She’d buy this motorcycle and create new memories. Don’t do it!
“It’s a good price, Fräulein. And I’d wager there’s a young man who would be more than willing to train a student such as you how to use it.” He grinned. “I’m assuming here that you don’t know how to ride one.”
“You’ve assumed correctly,” Jessie told him. She moved the camera case to her other hand as she ran her gloved hand across the Emblem’s shiny surface. “But that’s a temporary state.”
Two hundred dollars was a lot of money, and she’d committed herself to saving all she could so she could one day purchase her own studio instead of always working for someone else. Still, with a motorcycle she could leave the city on weekends, get away from the often overbearing kindnesses of her boarding family, the Harmses.
The proprietor cleared his throat in what sounded like impatience.
If she spent money on a motorcycle, she’d have to settle any guilty feelings over not sending more home to her family and accept that a little joy in her life didn’t mean she was being lax. The machine would be an investment; that’s how she’d think of it. It would make her focus on her work with greater effort. Wasn’t that the truth?
“I’ve heard of females riding bicycles. Seen a few around the city too. But a woman on a motorcycle? That would be a first in my experience. And I’m a man of experience, if you know what I mean.” He winked.
Jessie didn’t, but being the first female to ride a motorcycle around Milwaukee did not appeal; an innovative way to make money did. Yes, the motorcycle would allow her that. The newspaper would buy her prints. She didn’t know for certain that was the case, and she was trying to be honest with herself these days. At times that balance between what was and what could be felt precarious indeed. That, too, was part of her reason for being in Milwaukee, to practice being forthright. The newspaper might only want Robert Taylor’s work. But there were dozens of other newspapers from outlying towns she could approach. Don’t do it!
If she could sell her prints, she could contribute to the Harms household, if they’d accept her money.
“You’re thinking the price isn’t fair, Fräulein? I can tell you that even Schwinn’s motorcycle is that price, and it isn’t half as sturdy as the Emblem. Or are you just using that pretty head of yours to calculate?” He grinned, then added, “Maybe you like my company on this Saturday afternoon.”
“I’m sure it’s a fair price.” Jessie stroked the blue gas tank on the side with the Emblem label painted in black. Her fingers lingered over the smooth leather of the seat. She set the bag holding the 3A Graflex on the box above the front fender to see if the rectangular
camera bag fit in front of the handlebars. It did.
Her eyes stopped at the chains and tires. She’d worked for a bicycle shop owner in Winona, cleaning and sorting bicycle parts, so she knew there’d be more than just the cost of the machine to worry about. There’d be expense to keeping it up too. Was her talent enough to pay for all this?
But, oh, how she’d love the independence! It would help fill up the hours of doubt that marked her arrival in Milwaukee. Who was Jessie Gaebele if she wasn’t Lilly and Selma and Roy’s sister, her parents’ child, the apple of her grandparents’ and uncle’s eyes? Who was she if she wasn’t Fred’s…what? Student? Employee? Past paramour? Paramour.
She’d read a story employing that word in Woman’s Home Companion.
She and Fred hadn’t been lovers, but she had been the “other woman,” a weight as heavy as her camera case. Who was Jessie Gaebele when she was separated from those who had defined her? Her mouth felt dry.
“Wind rushes across your face and you feel like you’re flying on one of these babies, if you know what I mean,” the proprietor said. “You will feel as though you are in love.”
“Absence is to love what wind is to fire; it extinguishes the small, it enkindles the great.” A French writer had written that. She hadn’t meant to say it out loud.
“Ah, love,” he said and eased closer to her, and as he did, he shifted the wad of tobacco that pouched out his lower lip. He turned his head, and Jessie decided he’d moved to reach the spittoon sitting on a nearby bench. She wrinkled her nose, turned back to the Emblem.
“Men who ride these are in love with their machines,” he said. He scratched at his arms, large, with muscles thick and twisted like old lilac trunks. “I can tell now that you’ve a good head on your shoulders…seeing as how you’re taking such time to weigh the merits
of this machine and know it’ll take you to exceptional places.” He moved closer to Jessie. “Maybe a pretty young thing like you just needs extra reassurance about such a big purchase.”
“I know I wish to buy it, but I need to discuss whether you would allow me to purchase it on…credit. I’d give you a portion of the price now and then a sum each week.”
“You want me to trust you? I’d need a substantial deposit for that.”
He was beside her now, ignorant of the proper space between a gentleman and a lady. She could smell the day’s sweat on his striped shirt, and she stepped sideways, putting distance between them but still steadying her camera perched on the machine.
“I’d have to be certain of your good intentions.” His voice sounded lower now, his gaze moving like a slow flame up from her size three shoes to the glasses on her face. He stared into her eyes. She felt her face grow hot. “You give me something and I’ll give you something, if you know what I mean.” He nodded toward a door near the back. “Let’s take this negotiation into my office.” Don’t do it!
Jessie’s hands felt damp inside her gloves, and she was alerted for the first time to the danger she was in.
“Come along, Fräulein,” he said. He lifted her chin with his oilstained fingers. “It’s perfectly safe. You need a man of my experience is all, precious little thing like you, to teach you about business ways. Credit indeed.” He grinned.
She stumbled back from him, one hand still clinging awkwardly to her camera. There was no one else in the shop; it was situated in a district with other industries frequented by men but few women. It was late on a Saturday afternoon. No one would hear her cry of distress even if she shouted. Her heart pounded. She never should have come in here, a woman alone.
“I’ll give you a special deal on the machine, if you know what I mean,” he persisted. You know what he means.
She finally heard the words inside her head, the ones meant to keep her safe. “I’ve made up my mind,” Jessie said, hoping she wouldn’t give him reason to persist so she could make as dignified an escape as her leaden feet would allow.
But he reached for her then, squeezed his wide paws at her cheeks. He lowered his face toward hers. Dark tobacco juice glistened in the corner of his mouth. He pushed her against the Emblem. Get out! Get out!
How could she be so foolish! Jessie hefted the only weapon she had and struck him with her camera case, the force of it twisting her and the case to the ground. Only then did she consider what she’d destroyed and just how long it would take to earn her way back home.