CHANNELS
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Excerpt of HOW I PLAYED MY CARDS

Two women sitting in an outdoor space

Family photo courtesy of Nicole Harkin

EXCERPT OF HOW I PLAYED MY CARDS

 

The front yard of the house we bought in Lebanon, Illinois, needed a lot of work. The driveway wasn’t quite level. Every weekend for a month, Ed dug into the earth, replacing freshly turned over soil with gravel. He planted a maple sapling in the front yard, too. At the time, I thought we would live there long enough to watch the tree grow and its branches cover our front yard in shade.

Was Ed the love of my life? I might have said yes, then. He was tall and always wore a mustache. I always wore heels so people wouldn’t notice my height. I wore a hairpiece, in the style of the times, and never left the house without lipstick. We made a good team and a handsome couple. He was a good provider, and I looked after the house and our children, Linda and Eddie. If I am honest, having grown up in an orphanage, my marriage to Ed made me feel like I had finally claimed a spot at the table and no longer had to serve those who had already claimed seats.

Ed came home that April night around 11 p.m. — later than normal — from his job in the statehouse in Springfield where he was the chief deputy for the state auditor, Orville Hodge. The children were already downstairs in their bedrooms and I had happy news to share.

“Ed, I’m pregnant.”

Ed had known I wanted another child since I gave birth to Eddie six years earlier. He crossed his arms.

“Oh, Kay, not now.”

In the moment, I couldn’t understand his reaction. Ed was usually stoic, reserved. But the tone of his voice — unusually flat — unsettled me. Emotional reactions from Ed were difficult to come by.

“Why would you say that, Ed?” I asked.

“There’s some trouble in the office. I think it’ll all blow over, but I’m not sure.”

The next day, and in the months to follow, the scandal was all over the newspapers.

Funds Loss Set At $800,000.

Illinois Orders Arrest of Hodge, Two Others.

Hodge Pleads Innocent in Illinois Fund Scandal.

Ex-Official to Give Up All Assets.

Hodge Admits Guilt in State Fraud Case.

Hodge Guilty; Gets 20 Years.

Illinois Gets Million Plus From Hodge.

Auditor Gets 12 Years For Tapping Ill. Till.

Bankers is Sentenced to 3 Years.

Hodge’s Office Manager Gets 4 to 5 Years.

Time moved sideways, both quickly and slowly. One day, Ed was telling me there was trouble at work, and the next, we were sitting in a courtroom.

Ed said to anyone who would listen, “Orville is taking full responsibility for all of it.” Orville said the same thing, assuming all the blame. But in the end, it didn’t matter.

The Sangamon County courthouse had large columns and was made out of sandstone quarried nearby. The building had previously been the state capitol of Illinois until the state needed more room. Though it looked regal in downtown Springfield, my feelings about the building changed as I spent day after day there. At first spectacular and beautiful, it became mundane. I started to notice its flaws: where the floors weren’t polished, the wood of the pews was worn, and the plaster walls were cracked.

The Sangamon County courthouse had large columns and was made out of sandstone quarried nearby . . . Though it looked regal in downtown Springfield, my feelings about the building changed as I spent day after day there. At first spectacular and beautiful, it became mundane. I started to notice its flaws: where the floors weren’t polished, the wood of the pews was worn, and the plaster walls were cracked.

At first, I didn’t read the articles. I couldn’t believe he was involved. As I sat in the courthouse during his trial, listening to countless pieces of evidence revealing Ed’s supposed crimes, I didn’t believe the prosecutor. He looked slimy with his short hair, short stature, and expensive shoes. When the state came forward with evidence gathered from people we had thought were our friends, all saying horrible things about Ed, I still didn’t believe it. And when Ed was charged with five counts, including forgery, larceny, and embezzlement, I almost fainted.

In the evening, the newspapers would arrive, news from the day’s trial splashed across the front page. I would sit in the kitchen staring at his pictures thinking, I ironed that shirt. There was a small corner under his left arm that I could never get totally smooth. Nobody could see it, but I knew it was there. I knew what was under his coat.

As my world shrank, my belly grew larger and larger. Linda was thirteen years old and Eddie almost seven.

The trial, and then the papers, discussed a brown envelope passed between these men. And a black book that chronicled everything. Had I ever seen it? I knew it existed. Ed always carried it in his attaché. I had never read the book. It wasn’t my place to get involved in Ed’s business. I knew we had a safe in our basement. I knew that every few months Ed would have me fill out a form to submit receipts to the office for reimbursement. The items I wrote down were real — I had purchased them myself. I thought nothing more of it.

On August 27, 1956, Ed was arraigned. Hodge had no trial; he just pleaded guilty. No matter what I or Ed thought, in the eyes of the public he was guilty.

The trial, and then the papers, discussed a brown envelope passed between these men. And a black book that chronicled everything. Had I ever seen it? I knew it existed. Ed always carried it in his attaché. I had never read the book. It wasn’t my place to get involved in Ed’s business.
White houses with red people inside

At Home, Hedwige Jacobs

A year after he went to the slammer, I stopped talking. During the day, I would clean the house, my body moving and my mind empty. My children would find me sitting mute at the kitchen table when they came home from school.

“Hi, Mom. How was your day?” Eddie would ask.

Eddie was a soft child, kind. He did what he was told.

“It was a great day. Thanks for asking, Eddie,” he would reply with a higher voice, imitating my own.

“What did you do today?” he would ask.

“We learned the times tables, Mother. Do you want me to recite them to you?”

“Why of course.”

And then he would start, going and going until he ran out of knowledge. If I had been thinking I would have asked him to stop. Children prattling along is grating.

Instead, I sat there staring. The children had their food, they had a clean house and clothing. But they didn’t have me. I was numb.

Ed’s parents and I put up our homes for the $50,000 bond we posted together, to have him released from custody. The judge did not accept the bond and sent him to the Menard Southern Illinois Penitentiary, 60 miles from our home.

While Ed’s connections couldn’t keep him out of prison, they could make his stay there more comfortable. He didn’t have to live with the other prisoners in the general population. Instead, he was in charge of the greenhouse. As he raised orchids, I raised our children alone.

Towards the end of 1956, the US Senate decided to hold hearings about the scandal in Joliet, Illinois, right outside of Chicago. I couldn’t go up for the hearing. How could I afford it? I knew Ed wasn’t going to testify, anyway. He said he would let them haul him up there because, “why not?” He would get out of prison for at least a few days. I’m not sure that the reality of his situation had sunk in for either of us. I expected something would magically happen, and that everything would be fine.

Instead, Ed’s actions imprisoned me.

Cheri, our third child, came along five days after Thanksgiving that year. Not long after, Mother moved in with us. I needed the help.

Our small town shunned us. At the grocery store people would not talk to me and I could no longer put things on account. My friends stopped calling. I needed to work, but could not find anyone to hire me.

Mother gave me as much money as she could. And my first husband’s family helped us too, not that they had to. But still, with the children to feed, there was never enough.

Eventually, I was hired by a shop in a nearby town. I don’t know why the owner hired me. Maybe she took pity on me or maybe she was told to hire me. I didn’t care.

I went to the pastor at the Methodist church we attended for counseling. He told me no one in town knew I was poor. They all thought I was rich because my clothes were so nice. I never let them see me with my head down. I always dressed immaculately and made sure the children were also immaculate. I made my own sheath dresses in various colors, usually out of linen in the summer or poly for the winter. I bought matching shoes and purses at cost from the store where I worked. And I made all of my hats myself. The shop even asked me to model for the store.

The pastor told me he thought there was money buried in my yard.

Little did they know, Ed had buried a thousand dollars under the rose bush in the back of the house before he went to prison. He had told me not to touch it. How did he expect me to feed the children? I dug that money up as soon as he left.

Little did they know, Ed had buried a thousand dollars under the rose bush in the back of the house before he went to prison. He had told me not to touch it. How did he expect me to feed the children? I dug that money up as soon as he left.
pencil and ink drawing of a house with the sky inside

Pass By, Hedwige Jacobs

Around this time might be when I stopped going to church. In the children’s home or orphanage where I’d grown up, we spent a lot of time in church. Going to church was what people did then. But the church didn’t help me when I was in need. You can believe in God and not go to church. I told Mother that over and over when she asked me to go with her.

In a life filled with many dark times, this was the darkest. I won’t say I considered no longer playing my hand and ending my life, but the thought sat out there somewhere nearby. However, my children needed me.

One day, my only friend, Ruth, came by with the paper.

“Kay, you aren’t going to be happy about this article,” she said.

“Well, tell me something I don’t know.”

“I’ll just read it to you. Sit down.”

We sat down in my low yellow armchairs. I fought the impulse to lie back into their softness.

The neighboring city’s newspaper, The Daily Pantagraph, described me as “an expectant mother” who was “well-liked.” They also described me as “holding on to the steadfast belief that her husband is innocent and that he will be vindicated.”

“Ruth, how could they quote me without even talking to me?”

“Kay, it goes on: ‘I know Ed will be cleared in the end and everything will turn out alright.’”

“Well, that quote gives everything away,” I said.

I hadn’t been talking to many people.

“It’s the pastor’s wife. That bitch. Pardon my French.”

We both started laughing. What else was there to do?

But seeing all of this personal information in print incensed me. For weeks, I would lie in bed for hours, ruminating on what was said.

Life continued like this for some time.

◊     ◊     ◊

Three Years Later

Although Ed had been sent directly to prison after his trial, we appealed the verdict. The Supreme Court of Illinois took up the case. I felt only relief when I learned there wouldn’t be another trial; the court would review the trial transcripts and documents before ruling.

Ed had lost his CPA license. I didn’t know what kind of work he would find once he came home, but I prayed the supreme court would let him out.

I may sound evasive, or naive, but believe me when I tell you: I didn’t know what Ed and Orville and the rest of them were up to.

The basis of Ed’s appeal was that he was a contractor. As he hadn’t technically been employed by the state, he couldn’t have embezzled any money as a state employee. To me, his logic made sense. The supreme court did not agree.

I knew Ed had been connected. I would sit holding little Cheri, thinking back through my life choices, and wondering how I had ended up there. What had I expected to come of Ed’s connections? Was it ever explicit? No. But did I know? Yes.

Linda and Eddie were at school when the two men drove up, knocked on the door, and asked for the black book. They weren’t surprising, wearing the black suits you would expect. They wanted to search my home. I couldn’t have been more inwardly hysterical while remaining outwardly calm. I did not have the black book and they weren’t going to be allowed into my home.

They drove off angrily.

Every day I wrote Ed a letter. I sent him photos of the children. When the photos were eventually returned to me they were all stamped “CENSORED” with Ed’s prisoner number and the date written on them.

What did I say to him in all of those letters? I tried to support him in any way that I could. I told him about our days, going to work, and gossip from around town. I wasn’t speaking to many people, so I doubt I had much to share, and I couldn’t afford to buy the paper anymore. I asked him questions about the case. I should have asked a lot more questions, both before and after.

We drove down to see him every weekend. And when Eddie performed as the lead in Amahl and the Night Visitors, I had the recording played over the intercom of the prison. It must have been a treat. Eddie sounded like an angel.

My job was to keep a beautiful home and raise the children. I’d done that. People who came to our house gushed at how elegant it was and how comfortable they felt. I had new magazines ready to read and, even though I wasn’t a smoker, I always placed cigarettes out for guests who wanted to smoke. That might have been a mistake, as Linda became a lifelong smoker, but I digress. I may sound evasive, or naive, but believe me when I tell you: I didn’t know what Ed and Orville and the rest of them were up to.

Did I know flying on private planes and staying at the Drake Hotel in Chicago was expensive? Yes and no. I didn’t have a bank account. When I needed things, I put them on account. They would send Ed a bill at the end of the month and he would pay it. I didn’t have any concept of money, quite frankly.

What did I know? I knew we’d had a wonderful life and then everything fell apart. I couldn’t blame my husband because he represented security. I didn’t really know who to blame. But I also wasn’t dumb.

Ed and I had made a deal. And in the end, I was left home with three children, no money, and no husband.

◊    ◊    

This piece is an excerpt from a work in progress, “How I Played My Cards.” The book chronicles the life story of my grandmother, Eve Murry (1923-2014). Throughout her life she went by many names: Eva Mae Molesworth, Eva Scholes, Kay Murry, and finally, Eve Murry. I have done my best to bring her voice to life on the page. The following excerpt details the ripple effects of her second husband, Ed Epping’s, involvement in the Hodge scandal. At the time, Kay was thirty-three years old, the year was 1956, and Epping and his boss, Orville Hodge, had absconded with millions of dollars from the State of Illinois’s coffers. Fundamentally, what is it we contemplate when we ask ourselves at the end of a life, have we played our cards right?

Nicole Harkin headshot

NICOLE HARKIN

 

Nicole Harkin is an award-winning writer based in Washington, DC. Her first book, Tilting, A Memoir, was released in 2017 and received a gold medal in The Wishing Shelf Book Award in 2018. She is currently working on a true-life novel about her grandmother’s life. She is a freelance writer for a variety of different outlets, including Cool Tools, Brevity, and the Thought Collection, among others.

For more of Hedwige Jacobs’s visual art visit this portfolio.