Belong to Me

Season 1
Episode 4

Belong to Me

Great wealth devours families, consumes its soul. Some families survive it, most don’t. So it was for Abigail and Beatrice to live in wealth as the only two children of the fourth richest person in the United States. Their father, Angus Claesson, was a third-generation descendant of a railroad titan who sheared the vast forests along Lake Superior, transforming the majestic firs and cedars into ribbons of timber shipped around the world. He purchased a railroad company in his later years and tripled his fortune. Every rail car leaving Duluth carried his name and his timber.

Three-year-old Abigail called her baby sister BabyToes since she couldn’t pronounce Beatrice. The name stuck. The girls were inseparable, growing up in mansions with manicured gardens and bedizened fountains, nannies and butlers, ponies, and parties. Their mother, Lattice, was a renowned soprano until their father saw her perform un bel di vedremo from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera. Angus was in New York for a two-day meeting with his bankers, went to the opera to pass the time, and stayed five months. Their volatile, passionate courtship made front-page news until Lattice consented to marry him, abandon her career, and move to Duluth. His wealth financed her frequent trips to New York and Europe, hundreds of charities, and a legion of her love affairs. But Angus’ love was a bulwark, and Lattice always returned to him, the children, and their manors scattered around the world.

Eighteen-year-old Abigail forfeited her share of the family wealth by marrying the family’s chauffeur. Montana Mercy was the youngest of eleven children from the Iron Range, never saw the inside of a classroom, and never wore clothes that started with him. He landed his position with the Maast family through his love of engines, unfailing cheerfulness, and keen wit. When Abigail came home from college for Christmas, Montana, four years her senior, drove her home from the airport, carried her eleven suitcases into the living room, and hoped to never see her again. Over the five weeks of holiday, Abigail feigned indifference to the handsome, aloof newcomer but promptly enlisted his services as her personal driver. Montana found himself stealing glances at the lively red-head in his rearview mirror. By early January, they were both in the fierce grip of an unspoken love. Abigail decided to marry him, and Montana decided to leave. One morning, she hopped in the backseat of the limousine to discover a bald man with a bucktooth at the wheel instead of Montana. She was devastated, blamed her father for his exit, and declared in a rage that she’d marry Montana despite his disapproval. Angus glanced up from his newspaper, casually informed her that she’d lose every cent of her inheritance,  and went back to his paper.

It was BabyToes who found him. Montana was the head mechanic for a Canadian trucking company in Kenora. The two sisters loaded their father's Bentley with suitcases and drove north to International Falls, then northwest to Kenora, arriving at the trucking company about ten hours later. They blew into the main entrance of SENNET TRANSPORTATION. Abigail wore a bright purple, floppy hat with her thick hair stuffed under it, a pink ruffled dress, and a green shawl looped carelessly around her shoulder. Beatrice donned a tight, neon red pantsuit with a low-cut yellow blouse and red-striped stilettos. Just inside, they found Montana leaning against a filing cabinet next to an older man in greasy overalls and heavy, industrial boots. Both men were smoking. At the sight of the two women, Montana's cigarette flew out of his mouth and rocketed to the floor. The other man jolted to attention, staring in utter surprise at the newcomers.

Abigail sauntered to Montana, swinging her shawl dramatically over her other shoulder. “Why did you leave?"

Montana stared in unblinking shock, his chalk-white face vacant of emotion. “Uh, thought it was best, especially for you.”

“You’re wrong,” she said in a calm voice as if they were the only two in the room. “We belong together.”

Montana’s eyes watered as he shook his head. “Our families aren’t the same, couldn’t work out.”

"You're wrong again," Abigail said defiantly. "You belong to me, and I belong to you." She looked up at him, wide-eyed and flushed. "Let the cards fall." She pulled her hat off, her fire-red hair spilling down over her shoulders.

Montana took a deep breath. “I won’t be the reason you end up with nothing.”

“I won’t end up with nothing. I’ll have you.” Her lips turned up into a slight smile.

“That’s crazy talk.”

"Look me in the eye, Montana, and tell me that you don't love me." Abigail stepped within an inch of his face. Montana stumbled backward into the wall. He didn’t open his mouth.

“I’ll take that as a good sign,” Abigail said after a minute. “Lucky for us, you're short on words." She glanced at her sister, who was inching toward the other man, still sitting straight-backed at his desk, staring stolidly past her. "BabyToes, stop flirting. You're scaring him to death." She turned and looked at Montana again, pulling gently on the front of his shirt. "Don't ever leave me again." Montana stood motionless, towering over her. Abigail smiled and took his hand. “Do you hear me? Don’t ever leave me again.”

“I won’t,” he sputtered.

“Good.” Abigail brushed her lips on his, then let go of his shirt. “Well then,” she whispered, “are you going to propose?”

“Right here … now?" Montana’s face spasmed. He put his hand on the locker to steady himself.

Abigail’s face softened into a smile. “Yes, Montana, right here, right now.” She put her hat on the floor, straightened her dress and shawl, and patted her hair away from her eyes. "I came halfway across Canada for a proposal, and I'm not leaving without one." 

Montana shuffled his feet and scratched his chin. “But I don’t have a ring.”

BabyToes sauntered over to Montana, opened his hand, and placed a small diamond ring into his palm. "I just happened to have this on me," "she said, "forgot to give it back to one of my boyfriends." She giggled and flashed a seductive glance at the man. He was looking everywhere in the room but at her.

Montana looked at the ring, then at the other man. “Well, Benaim, guess you'll be witnessing a marriage proposal."  

Quoi?’ Benaim muttered.

BabyToes guffawed and turned to him.  “Ah, vous ne parlez pas l’anglais?” she blurted out, “nous pouvons parler francais.” She took his hand. Benaim looked down, crimson-faced, trying to loosen his hand from hers. She let go and grinned at her sister. “I love men from Canada.”

Abigail rolled her eyes and pinched her sister's arm. “You love men from anywhere, darling." She took Montana's hand.

Montana took both of hers in his.  “Abigail Claesson, will you marry me?” he asked, holding out the ring.

"Yes, Montana Mercy, I will marry you." Abigail stretched out her hand, and Montana slipped the ring on her finger.

Turned out Montana came from fistfuls of aptitude for numbers. The oldest brother, Nevada, was a professional poker player, and Utah, the second son, invented an algorithm for picking the most gifted athletes in sports. The Dakota twins developed precision machinery for airplane engines. Carolina became a plastic surgeon, and Virginia married a wealthy rancher from Texas. From Abigail's side came prodigious musical talent and business savvy. Their children would have good genes.

A few months after the twins’ birthday, the Mercy family headed to Minneapolis for a national piano competition, traveling southwest along Highway 61, past thickset forests of firs, pines, maples, cedars and the restive waters of Lake Superior. An unseasonable cold snap hastened the trees’ flush of autumn’s colors --- flame-red, muted-gold, and rust leaves floated in the air. A  panorama of colors in fluttering descent. Rhett, the oldest, was driving. He’d been talking since they started the trip. Abigail was squeezed between him and Montana.

“Told the Chief Surgeon that I had it under control.” Rhett grinned. “Guess he trusted me to finish.”

“Well, we’re so proud of you,” Abigail exclaimed, patting her son on the back. “I can’t figure where you got those brains, certainly not from your father or me.”

“Speak for yourself, Abby.” Montana chided. “I just don’t go around bragging about how smart I am.”

“Well,” Rhett added, “only got a year left of residency, then I’ll make a ton of money and spend it all on myself.”

Abigail smiled and patted him on the arm. "That's just what you should do, son. You've worked very hard to get where you are already."

 “Oh, come on, Ma,” Rhett replied, “I’m just teasing you.”

Abigail jabbed him in the side. “Well, just don’t forget what your Aunt BabyToes always tells you. Find yourself a nice girl to marry and settle down.”

Rhett snickered. “She’s no one to talk. Mose is her sixth husband.”

"Well, that's no matter," Abigail said defensively. "Some of us take a little longer to find our soulmates." Abigail snuggled into Montana and put her arm in his.

Montana pulled her closer. “Looks like the others are waking up back there.”

"I haven't been sleeping, Pa," CC chirped from the back of the van. "Been listening to Rhett brag as usual.” Rhett scowled at her through his rearview mirror.

"You mind your manners, CC," said Abigail, "becoming a doctor is a huge accomplishment. He's taking after his Aunt Carolina. Your brother's going to do a lot of good in the world, so you respect him."

CC grimaced. “You can’t demand respect, Ma.”

Harpe popped up from the back of the van and began tapping out notes with his fingers and turning the pages of a Chopin Nocturne. “I’ll never get this timing right,” he fretted.

 “Stop that, Harpe," Leon shouted, “or you won’t have any skin left on your fingers.”

Harpe grinned at Leon, still finger-tapping the air. Leon sneered and stared out the window. Virgil was studying a map of Alaska on the seat beside him. He was writing notes along the margin of the map. CC watched him for a moment, wondering if she should interrupt him. Instead, she leaned forward and wrapped her arms around her father’s neck as the sun’s inchoate rays stretched across the blue-gray lake.

She thought about the dead man, re-enacting every second in slow motion. Stepping toward her with his pistol, the sound of her gun and the bullet piercing his head, the contorted scowl imprinted on his face as he stumbled and fell. She saw herself standing over the lifeless body on the gravel lot. An eerie chill welled from deep inside. She looked back at Virgil. He was asleep, his head resting against the window and the map of Alaska sprawled on his lap. Her eyes met Leon's piercing stare. "Quit looking at me, Leon. You're creepy," she blurted out. Leon just grinned grimly.

"Hey everybody, we're almost here," shouted Abigail from the front of the van, "and remember this is Harpe's day, so all of you behave." Rhett swerved abruptly to the right and exited the freeway. The auditorium stood in front of them. They filed down the long walkway and entered a cavernous, neon-lit room where families congregated at the breakfast buffet.  An elevated mahogany stage was at the back of the room with a black-lacquered piano. The cover was open, exposing the silver strings and soft leather hammers. Harpe walked immediately to the edge of the stage. It's a Grand Performance Steinway, he said aloud to himself. It's magnificent.

He was the youngest of the twenty-three contestants and was tenth to perform. The Mercy family sat in the auditorium's center in the third row, waiting impatiently for Harpe’s turn on the stage, except Leon, who slouched in his chair and looked around the room with a bored expression. CC and Virgil watched the stage. Rhett talked with a woman in a flowery dress at the end of the aisle. A low hum of whispering voices filled the room.

 Harpe entered from the back left of the stage. Tall, wire-thin, wearing his new black suit, he walked slowly toward the piano confident and relaxed, his head bent forward as he nodded to the audience. The host announced, “Mr. Harper Mercy will perform Frederich Chopin’s Number 4, in C-sharp Minor, Opus 66, Fantasie Impromptu. Restrained applause circled the auditorium as Harpe bowed stiffly and sat at the piano. He adjusted his tie and positioned his fingers just above the keys. The crowd was hushed. There was a moment's pause, and then his fingers struck the first chord, then the second and third. His body leaned into the piano as his fingers glided across the keyboard. The notes rose in haunting crescendos, then softened and slowed in descending arcs. His bench slid back from the force of his body's motions --- rocking and shifting. The music, the Steinway, and the boy fused into transcendent sound. As he neared the end, his pace slowed, the notes softened, the last chord visited. He lifted his hands from the keys, stood and bowed, and walked off the stage.

Stunned and silent, the audience suddenly exploded into cheers and wild applause. The Director walked to the microphone, gestured for silence, and announced the next performer. The Mercy family, frozen in their seats, stared in bewilderment at the right of the stage where Harpe had ceremoniously exited. Rhett jumped to his feet, cheering and whistling. Virgil smiled, and CC waved her arms in the air. Leon was pushing through the aisle to get away, and Abigail was crying. Montana rubbed his forehead. "Was that our son?"

At the end of the competition, Harpe was sitting in a closet-sized room behind the stage. The back of his chair was leaning against the wall and the door was wide open. Contestants were shouting and laughing, darting in and out of the rooms along the narrow corridor. A girl barged into his room and planted herself directly in front of his chair. Harpe tilted the chair forward, so all four legs were on the ground as if readying for escape. The girl had black curly hair that stuck out on all sides of her head.

“Why did you pick that piece?” she asked accusingly, glaring at him.

“Excuse me,” asked Harpe politely.

“Are you deaf? Who are you, Beethoven? I asked you --- why did you play Chopin?”

“I like Chopin.”

“You should have played something more challenging. Like Bach, he’s the master of precision.” She crossed her arms in front of her. “Chopin rambles all over the place." She unfolded her arms and pretended to play the keyboard in the air, her frantic fingers flying up and down and left and right.

Harpe stood slowly and stepped toward her. "What’s your problem?” He frowned. "Just because you can't hear the patterns in his masterpieces doesn't mean there aren't any." He reddened, realizing that he was yelling at her. "Look," he said quietly, “you like your composers, and I'll like mine. Let's leave it at that."

Just then, CC swung into the room and plopped down clumsily on a small stuffed chair, dust bursting into the stale air. She grinned at her brother. The girl turned to leave when Abigail, breathless and panting, intercepted her a few steps from the room. “Hello, young lady!" she said to the girl. "Oh my, I almost knocked you over. You're such a tiny thing." Abigail patted her on the shoulder. "What's your name, dear?"

"Beane, with an e."

"What a lovely name. It's nice to meet you, Beane. I'm Harpe's mother, Abigail Mercy.”  She extended her hand, but the girl didn't reciprocate. "Is your family here?"

“No,” the girl replied, her eyes fixed blankly on Abigail. 

“Oh, I see. Well, that’s too bad. We all really enjoyed your performance. You were excellent.”

"I wasn't excellent," Beane said. "I wasn't even average." She glanced past Abigail. “I have to go, or I'll miss my ride." She swung around abruptly and ran down the corridor. Abigail watched her disappear into the crowd. Strange young thing, she mused, seems so alone. But her thoughts didn't linger on the girl. Harpe was rushing toward her.