The Poison Hill


The Man I Love

There had never been a time, after Gertrude had known David, when she had not believed that she would marry him someday. He had first appeared in the driveway in 1919, in that jittery spring after the war: an intense, upright boy who even in high school still tied up his books with a cord, who waited for her brother Louis at 7 a.m., rain, snow or fog, refusing all enticements into the kitchen. Nah, I’ll wait out here. Nah, I’m OK, Mrs. Leskow. He had called their housekeeper, Alida, Mrs. Leskow, and he repeated the gaffe almost daily, never acknowledging in any serious way that he had made a mistake long after he must have realized it.

That was the year that a chant, rhyming “Leskow” with “presto!” was raised whenever Louis crossed the high school campus, the year of his debating win streak, the year the Juniors ran the Junior-Senior Banquet (as they called it) as a Russian Revolution party and served caviar and borscht.

It was the year, too, that Louis brought home “Crazy Blues” and wound up the Victrola until the twining blues, rambling like a vine, climbed out and Gertrude found him dancing a solo grizzly bear on the Persian carpet, arms squeezed around himself, hopping from side to side.

No one else could understand their music. That murky wailing, those screeching horns! Their parents thought it was awful. And yet it was life; it was happiness; it was truth and justice and passion and everything else that had been locked up in the closet and lost. Thereafter Gertrude sat in front of the Victrola and wound it up over and over, shivering happily as the distant voice began again:

I can’t sleep at night, I can’t eat a bite…

’Cause the man I love, he don’t treat me right…

Even David, normally so scornful of everything, had grabbed her as he listened to it, and stepped her backward across the room in a kind of tango and dipped her far, far back until she shrieked…

Part 1

St. Paul, Minnesota

Summer 1924

“She had ridden only a few miles further when she saw a golden curl lying on the road before her. Checking her horse, she asked whether it would be better to take it or let it lie.

‘If you take it,’ said Sunlight, ‘you will repent, and if you don’t, you will repent, too, so take it.’ ”

--“The Girl who Pretended to be a Boy” from Andrew Lang’s Violet Fairy Book


The Secret

“Say, Gertrude, can you do the study down in X-ray later? I gotta pick up my uncle at the train station.”

Gertrude looked over at Rose, who sat at the desk opposite her at the Medical Institute of St. Paul.

“I have to meet my brother for lunch at one o’clock.”

“Really?” Interest flickered in Rose’s voice. “Is he coming here to pick you up?”

“No, I’m meeting him at the drugstore.”

“Too bad! He’s really good-looking, your brother. I bet he has a girlfriend.”

Gertrude thought of Louis’ parade of dates. “Not a steady one.”

“I knew it!”

“Maybe I could get him to walk me back here after lunch is over and you could meet him.”

It was a cheap thing to say. Louis would charm Rose, but he was just as likely to laugh at her afterwards. And then every day from now on Rose would ask about him. Is your brother coming here again? What’s he like? What kind of girls does he like?

“That would be swell, Gertrude. And could you do the study for me? Please? You just have to sit at the desk and enroll the names when they come in. It’s for Dr. Nair, you know -- rickets. The children are just darlin’.”

X-ray was the in the basement. Gertrude took her purse out of her desk, so she could go straight to lunch when the study was done, and went down the narrow wooden staircase to the Institute research lab. She had only been to X-ray a couple of time since February, when she had started at the Medical Institute. Just the thing to build a nest egg, her mother had said, and it wasn’t like David would be home from Princeton this summer.

She liked the smell of the research lab, bright and clean with cedar shavings from the animal cages. The mice and guineapigs stirred as she passed, and one of the Negro janitors, sweeping up, paused and moved out of her way.

Beyond the lab the basement hallways were always deserted and gloomy. Lit only by naked electric bulbs in sockets they branched off, here and there, a maze of unpainted walls and dripping pipes. Though she had never met another soul in them she walked quickly, looking backwards, until she came around the last corner.

Dr. Nair was already there, unlocking the door of the lab.

“Where’s Miss Dietrich?”

“She couldn’t come. She – I told her I’d help instead.”

“I see.” Dr. Nair turned the log book around. “Please be sure the names are recorded accurately, Miss Leskow.”

“Yes, Dr. Nair.”

“And don’t send them in until I call them, please.”

If it had been anyone but Dr. Nair! Gertrude would never have confessed it to Rose, but she was scared of him. His hands were walnut brown, his hair short black streaks cut close to his head, but worst of all were his eyes, brown in a brown face, always so intent in their gaze that she had to turn her own away. On the desk of his office a picture of him in a bowler hat, with a cane, standing in front of a building at Cambridge University, proclaimed him to be a son of the British Empire. Yet he was still an Indian, for all that. The Institute had been unable to get anyone in St. Paul to rent a room to him, until Dr. Kirsch found a building owned by one of the trustees.

The children were not darling. They were pale and silent, with pinched, squarish faces. Two were in wheelchairs and another little boy leaned deeply over crutches. They were poor. Only the poor got rickets. Dr. Nair moved briskly about in his white coat, setting up the X-ray machine.

Gertrude sat down in front of the enrollment book and dipped the pen. On the next fresh page she wrote the date and then a row of numbers for every person waiting.


“Carl Olsen.”

Her pen was corrupted. She drove against the paper, scratching out the letters in a faint blue trail.

C-a-r-l. “It’s K-a-r-l, miss.” K-a-r-l O-l-s-e-n.


She should go upstairs and find another pen. She had always been proud of her penmanship, at least, and here was this deadly instrument leaving blots all over the page. But Dr. Nair leaned out and called the first name. The door opened and shut and the X-ray machine began to hum. The waiting parents stared at her. Gertrude smoothed the page of the book and looked at the slit of daylight at the top of the stairs to the alley and thought about what she would order at the drugstore. A milkshake, certainly. And a cheese and tomato sandwich?

The moment she pictured the sandwich there was a faint, far-away twist of pain below her stomach.

She froze at her desk, her hand clenching down on the pen. The pain rose and held itself, like a note of music ringing through her body. A drop of ink from the tip of the pen fell on the page, melting the names she had written so neatly and spreading out into a small, pale-blue circle. She held her breath. Slowly, slowly, the pain turned, like an animal turning around and around in order to sleep, and died away.

The X-ray door opened and the first patient emerged, helped by his father.

“Just a minute,” Dr. Nair said to Karl Olsen’s father, who had already risen. “Miss Leskow, can I see you?”

As she got up to follow him into the x-ray room the pain came back. Just a twist, a pinch, a nudge, a knot which drew up and worked itself out, making her legs shaky as she shut the door. She leaned against the bed of the X-ray machine.

“Miss Leskow, I realize you are merely a substitute today, but I rely on my assistants to…” Dr. Nair turned, his hands behind his back, walking back and forth as his voice droned on.

It couldn’t be her period. Not today, today of all days, when she was going to lunch with Louis. Besides, it was too early…

“A cheerful manner makes a pleasant atmosphere, Miss Leskow. Miss Dietrich is excellent at this sort of thing…”

It was too early. It wasn’t a month yet. Last time was the Saturday they went over to Minneapolis and she’d worried the whole time that it might come and it came late the next day, Sunday, and she had called in sick Monday. Seven days from Sunday/Monday and seven more and another seven, but this week had only started…

Dr. Nair had stopped talking. He was looking at her, waiting for a response.

“Yes, Dr. Nair.” Always the safest reply.

“You understand me, then, Miss Leskow?”

“Yes, Dr. Nair.” What had he been talking about? Something about being cheerful. “Dr. Nair?”

“Are you all right, Miss Leskow?”

“I’m fine,” she said. “I’d like to be excused, after the next patient, please.”

“Excused? I need you for at least two hours!”

“No – I mean, just for a few minutes.”

“Oh.” It was another few agonizing seconds before he said, “Of course, Miss Leskow.”

“Thank you.” Later she would dwell on the tiny burble of outrage in his “Excused?” and those hideously long seconds, and cringe with shame.

On the way back from the bathroom she stopped at the water fountain and took of the few remaining pills from the bottle given to her by Dr. Schwartz, long ago, before her mother had given up dragging her to every specialist in the Twin Cities. If it could at least get her through lunch, she would go home after that.

When she sat down at the table again the parents were still standing in a row against the wall, waiting. One of the boys had snot dripping down his face. Next to him was a girl, pale and droopy, her face withered, like the changeling who replaced a baby in one of Gertrude’s fairy-tale books, though her hair was as blonde as the child who had been stolen.

The pain began again. Gertrude bit her thumb, to counterweight it, and held her breath. She was not going home. The pills were going to work. She …was …not… going…

The X-ray door seemed to shimmer. Two of the mothers were talking now, in some Slavic language, like crickets chirping back and forth. The blonde girl was still staring at her.

When the pain was gone she took a piece of paper and pushed it towards the girl, along with a pencil.

“Do you want to draw, honey?” She made a scribbling motion in the air. “Do you want to draw something pretty on the paper?”

Her voice sounded syrupy-fake to her own ears. Rose would have known what to say.

The pain stirred again, and with it a huge gulp of nausea, until the sweat ran off her face. She swallowed hard and thought of Louis walking along the sidewalk in his summer whites, waiting for her, teasing her, telling her he was dating the girl who stamped books in the library…

Why this day, of all days? Why should she never be allowed to have even the smallest amount of fun?

The sheet of paper was still in front of the girl, and the pencil next to it. Her offer had produced more chirping. One of the women stepped forward now.

“She can’t hold the pencil, miss. Lookit her wrist.”

The girl held it out, flat and bent, as if it had been crimped with pliers.

“Excuse me.” The pain crashed down, like an accidental chord banged on a piano. She fled down the hallway towards the bathroom

The floor of the bathroom was cold beneath her cheek, a lovely marble coldness. Wonderful to throw up, wonderful and terrible, for no one would ever come down here, in the deepest depths of the basement, to find her; she would die completely alone here, and her bones would crumble away.

With shaky arms she pushed herself up and felt along the smooth wood of the stall door for the lock. The door flew open, and she stumbled up towards the sink. Something was wrong with the pad: the belt had gotten twisted, and she yanked at the back of her skirt, trying to fix it, but it wouldn’t go back in place. She didn’t care. She rinsed her mouth and brushed her sleeve across her face. She had to call her mother quickly, before Louis left for the drugstore.

“Dr. Nair?”

“Miss Leskow? Is the next one ready?”

“Dr. Nair, I think I’d better go – I’m really sick.”


She was afraid there might be professional interest in his words.

“I mean – I think it’s food poisoning. Something I had for breakfast. I don’t know but I’d better go home, I think.”

She clenched her jaw and stared at him. He was looking at her as if she were something under a microscope. He did not believe her. He really had no idea. She closed her eyes and felt her stomach rise again. Pressing her lips together, she managed only to make a choking noise and the vomit was forced back down. Back into her mind came the time she had thrown up on Miss Oliver’s buckskin shoes in the front hallway of the school, as she was going to the office to call her mother.

Dr. Nair understood that much, at least. He stepped back quickly.

“I see, Miss Leskow. I think I should call upstairs and ask Miss Dietrich or Miss Batt to escort you home.”

“It’s OK.” The pain faded an inch or two. “My mother is going to come pick me up.”

“I see.”

He sounded slightly annoyed, perhaps because he realized that she had called her mother before even asking for permission to leave. Well, she did not care. He had no right to question her actions. He wasn’t even a white man.


Tree shadows, darker than the slowly graying dusk, on her bedroom wall. The leaf-shapes shimmied, shifting in the breeze, and she almost closed her eyes again. Far away, down on Grand Avenue, the streetcar brake squeaked.