"The Man from New York" Excerpt from Finding Ada: A Novel
August 9, 1915
The two-room cabin was still dark when Ayita awoke, though the sky was tinged teal as the sun grew closer to the horizon. For a moment, she lay there, listening to Kitchi’s breathing, soft and deep. She let the rhythm lull her into a daze, bringing her back closer to sleep. Then she opened her eyes and sat up. A breeze carried the rustling of hay in the barn across the yard and into the open window. She had almost forgotten about the man from New York, who came with $500,000 in a suitcase to buy her brother-in-law’s land for his employer—one of the Rockefellers. Last night was his final offer, he had said. In the morning, he would be leaving and it would be too late for Chaska and Meli to change their minds.
Ayita squinted through the dark. $500,000 could buy a lot—a bigger house, more furniture, better clothes and food. If they had taken the money, they could have bought Kitchi his own bed. Ayita assumed it was alright for a five-year-old to share a bed with his aunt, but it could not stay that way. One day Kitchi would be a young man. Then people in town would talk. Did you know Ayita Adair sleeps in the same bed with her fifteen-year-old nephew? She could hear the fork-tongued gossipers now.
She shook the thought from her head and looked down at Kitchi, curled into a ball with his thumb in his mouth. He deserved more than a two-room shack and a barn in the middle of nowhere. They all deserved more. They deserved to bathe in a separate room from where they ate and slept, and to have a storage shed for their food and supplies instead of filling the only spare room to the ceiling with corn, dried beans, flour, and seeds.
She slid out of bed and crept out the door. The cool, damp air clung to her skin. She slipped her feet into her shoes and crossed the yard to the barn, the breeze blowing her nightgown back and twisting the hem around her ankles. The black shadows of the barrels of horse feed, chicken feed, and barley Chaska sold at the farmer’s market crisscrossed the yard. The only light came from the barn and a sliver of the fading moon.
Ayita tiptoed up to the barn door and peeked in through a crack in the doorframe. Samuel Keefe stood with the suitcase of money propped open on the workbench. One at a time, Samuel pulled out a stack of hundred-dollar bills and held them under the lantern, thumbing through and counting them, and then laying the stack back into the case.
Ayita felt her pulse quicken as she watched him stroke the spines of the stacks of bills. She wanted that money. She glanced down at the pile of tools resting by her feet: a hoe, a scythe, and a shovel. Any one of them would do nicely. She could sneak up from behind, crack him over the head, load his limp body into the wagon and drive him out passed the Pilate’s place, thirty miles away. Then she could come back for the money. Their financial worries would be gone. It was so simple. Too simple. Ayita shook her head. It was insane. She was ashamed to even think of it.
Knocking him unconscious would be an awful thing to do. She searched for another solution. She remembered the man she had sold ten pounds of corn to last year. His offer to buy her for an hour had made her blush and call for her brother-in-law, who had been only feet away, haggling with another farmer over the price of a cow. The prospect made her feel filthy then. But now, as she thought about the fine things they could have, she felt a part of her awaken that she had never known was there. It was a wildcat, waiting, stalking its prey, to reveal itself at just the right moment.
Ayita tapped on the door and pushed it open. Samuel started, then ran his fingers through his oiled hair.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said, closing the suitcase and locking it. “Have you changed your mind?”
Ayita shook her head. He thought she was Meli. She didn’t blame him. Only Chaska and Kitchi could tell them apart. While Meli was outspoken and no-nonsense, Ayita spent her time dreaming about riches and far off lands while, at the same time, working to keep Kitchi from under his mother’s feet.
“I’m Ayita,” she said.
“I apologize.” He stared down at the case. “Have they changed their minds?”
“No.” Ayita looked at him. She was not sure what to say next. She leaned against the wall, letting a sleeve slip from her shoulder and gave him the look she had seen Meli give Chaska so many times before running into the barn only to come back with their clothes wrinkled and bits of hay stuck in their hair.
She traced him with her eyes, starting at his short auburn hair, oiled and slicked back away from his pink, freckled face. His green eyes sparkled like the river in the middle of summer. She looked at his chest and arms. They were thin with very little muscle, and she imagined that his arms were milky-white beneath the long sleeves. He had never done a hard day’s work in his life, she thought, but not a bad looking guy. The only feature she didn’t like was his nose—small and pointy, like a rat—and the thin mustache reminded her of whiskers. Ayita locked eyes with him.
Samuel took his overcoat from the workbench and wrapped it around Ayita. “You must be freezing,” he said as he let the back of his hand brush across her bared shoulder. Ayita stiffened and pulled the coat closed. The shame she had felt a year ago returned, and she turned to leave.
“Have you ever been to Asheville?” he asked. He had followed her out into the yard.
“Only for the farmer’s market.”
“Well,” he said, “I won’t be able to get a train back to New York until tomorrow morning, and I sure would love some company today. How about it?”
Ayita thought for a moment. She had a feeling “company” was a euphemism for something less than honorable, but perhaps a different way to get the money would arise. She nodded. “Alright. Give me just a minute. I need to change clothes.” She turned to head back toward the cabin.
“Don’t worry about that,” Samuel said. “I’ll buy you something nice to wear when we get to town. Besides, you go back in there now and you’re liable to wake somebody up.”
Ayita studied Samuel. He had a point. “Alright.”
Samuel led her out of the barn and over to the Ford Model T he had driven. As he cranked the engine, lamp was lit in the cabin.
Hurry, they’re waking up.
Samuel seemed not to notice the light as he climbed into the driver’s seat. He inserted the key in the ignition and pulled a couple of handles. Ayita watched the light in the cabin move to the side where she slept.
“Almost ready,” Samuel said. He got out of the car and cranked the engine again. The engine roared to life. Samuel leaped back into the driver’s seat and they lurched forward, the wheels throwing up a cloud of dust as they rumbled out of the yard.
The cabin door opened and Ayita looked back. Chaska stood in the doorway, silent and staring. The car turned onto the dirt road and within seconds the cabin was lost from sight. Ayita leaned back in her seat and sighed. How would she explain this later?
Megan Elder Evans