When Charlie Gehringer finally got married, he had long retired from the Major Leagues and had moved from the stronghold of the Tigers to Monroe, the garden of the uninterested. This lowly town in the crook of Illinois where the Ohio merged with the Mississippi was one he’d passed through a good deal in the off season selling wares door-to-door for Lippman’s. Gehringer liked the way Shawnee National Forest puffed up like a green cushion south of the town and eased the flat stretch north of the town.
Gehringer’s mother succumbed to diabetes/heart failure/kidney disease after relying on his caretaking (in the off-season) for the past twenty years and Gehringer could at last make a home with a wife. His poor mother, in the final failure of multiple organs, had emitted such a foul odor, morning, noon, and night, Charlie could not approach her without a handkerchief pressed to his snout. Those days were over now and the good woman lay in the ground. Rosalynd Gehringer, his young bride from Grosse Pointe, represented his independence from his mother. With this independence, Gehringer hoped to pursue the thing that had alluded him in sales: civic engagement.
Damn fine cook, this Rosie. Gehringer had all but stopped eating the plainest of foods in deference to his mother’s infinite food sensitivities. Their first meal together was in the spring of 1949 and it was at this meal that Rosalynd introduced him to an angel food cake.
“I believe I’m in heaven with the angels,” he said. “Dear Rosie.”
“I can’t believe that in all your time on this earth, you never ate a bite of angel food cake!” Rosie threw back her head and laughed.
Rosie was always laughing. He very much liked that about his wife. Mother never laughed. Except at the politicians, he supposed. Rosie could care less about political figures, though she certainly was proud of her husband’s ambitions, as she should be. (A wife’s duty was to listen with a fond, dreamy look in her eye as he spoke.)
“Might shuffle downtown after this,” Gehringer said after he’d finished the last bite of cake.
Rosalynd arched an eyebrow.
“Got some slogans to fiddle with for the campaign.”
“You can’t do that here?”
“Sometimes a man thinks better outside the walls of his home,” he told her. That was final.
Gehringer walked slowly down Main Street. A bad knee had put him out of baseball five years ago and the reduced activity had not done much to improve his mobility. He took his daily walk—“my constitutional,” he called it—up and down the Main Street, stopping every block or so to chat with neighbors and business owners. Karsinski was usually the first person he saw, spraying down the front sidewalk of his bakery or crouching on the pavement with a cigarette turning its ember to ash. Gehringer had never really known how the man, a poor immigrant from Poland after the war, had gotten the money to open the bakery. Once Gehringer won the Mayoral Race, he’d make it his business to look into the revenue streams of all these businesses.
Monroe used to be made up of farmers and coal men, specialists of all types. The war had uprooted the men and women had taken their jobs. The young men had moved to Chicago and found girls up there; the women who remained were bitter and settled for the first wallet that came along. The men who stayed in Monroe saw conspiracy in everything. Gehringer suspected many town leaders were secretly Communist sympathizers, including his opponent, Randall Davis, who was running as a candidate of a strange party called Farmer’s League.
Gehringer was a servant to his country. He had not been able to fly in the second war because of his age, and his knee, and he’d been too young for the first. He’d only ever wanted to serve. Monroe caught his eye because in it, on the northern hills of the Ohio River, he saw potential to recover a single American town from ruin. And it didn’t hurt that Pepsi Cola was opening a plant there—the largest in the Midwest!—east of the town.
“Mister,” Karsinski called out after Gehringer passed by.
Did the damn fool not even know his name? Gehringer knew the baker’s name, not that it was hard to remember the one foreigner in town.
Gehringer turned. Karsinski was beckoning to him. The old baseball player eased himself off the sidewalk and hobbled across the street.
“Do you like desserts?” Karsinski asked. He smiled and Gehringer felt his gut drop. The man’s smile was pitted by missing teeth. Karsinksi’s skin was stretched tight across his face like it might split while near his chin and ears the skin sagged like excess fabric. The only nice-to-look-at thing about the man was his eyes: blue as a field of bachelor’s buttons. Gehringer couldn’t place where he might have seen Karsinski before, though he felt that he had; the truth was that it would have been impossible to have met him anywhere other than here on this narrow Main Street in Illinois.
Karsinski opened the door to the bakery, a simple room with flour blown all the way to the front door. “I made too many and now I must find a person to give them to.”
“I add a bit of rum to the poppies,” Karsinski said. He handed Gehringer a large paper bag. “Makowiec. It’s very good.”
“What do I owe you?” Gehringer struggled to pull his wallet out. Karsinski stepped back and folded his arms across his chest. “No, sir,” Karsinski said simply.
A few poppy seed rolls remained when the ex-ball player returned home to his lovely young wife. “Goodness, Charles, I’ll never forgive you for bringing these home,” Rosie said after she’d eaten one in less than a minute.
The town at the edge of Shawnee might be filled with secret Communist sympathizers, but on that spring day, the newly married, soon-to-be mayor decided that the baker’s small fortune was above suspicion.