Three blocks down Main we pull up to the curb, this time at Stenger’s Pharmacy. I repeat my instructions to my mute companion, this time shortening the command: “Stay!” Like he’s Three Legs the dog. “Stay!”

Another Try

As if the six-inch gap will entice passing customers in, the front door of the pharmacy is propped open. “Mr. Stenger?” I call, pushing it wider and looking around. Except for a scrawny orange cat on the counter, the shop appears vacant. “Mr. Stenger?” I call again louder, and a short, round man with a balding head and one lazy eye comes out of the back carrying a bucket and mop. He wears a long white cloth coat with a crooked red bow tie, and the store smells like carbolic acid and something sweet, probably Lilly of the Valley Toilet Water. (I used to buy it here in better days.)

“Oh, hello. I didn’t hear you come in. . . . Is that Becky Myers? Nurse Becky! I heard you were back.” He leans his mop against the wall, moves toward me, right arm outstretched and I shake his soft hand. My hands were soft once too, but as I look down I notice a little grime under the nails. Without hot running water, I’ve become a country girl.

“What can I do for you?” Stenger asks. “Is the doc all right? I heard he’d suffered some sort of fall.”

“No, not a fall. We don’t know of any injury. Some of the specialists at Johns Hopkins thought he might have had a stroke. Others say it’s catatonia, a neurological condition brought on by hysteria or maybe shock.”

“I know about catatonia. Part of my training was at the State Asylum for the Insane in Weston. You’d see those people, the catatonics, walking around carrying a doll or dancing with a broom. It’s like they’re ghosts.”

“Yes, that’s what he’s like, a ghost of himself. It’s pitiful really.”

The pharmacist shakes his head and leans on the counter. “So what can I do for you, Miss Becky?”

“I need to find work.” I don’t lead up to it this time, just dive right in.

“Whew! You and everyone else in the good old USA. Papers say twenty-five percent of the nation is unemployed, but in West Virginia it’s worse.” He indicates the headlines in the Charleston Gazette on a newspaper rack in the corner: UNEMPLOYMENT REACHES 80 PERCENT IN UNION COUNTY.

“That’s like no jobs at all. Eighty percent! Most of the mines have shut down. . . . Hear about the strike in Toledo?” He pushes last week’s paper across the counter. AUTO-LIGHT STRIKE IN TOLEDO. 2 DEAD. 200 INJURED, reads the headline. “Six thousand union strikers fought fifteen hundred National Guardmen.”

“Listen, Mr. Stenger, I know it’s bad all over, but I’m desperate. Can you think of any work at all?” The pharmacist turns back to his mop and bucket. “I wouldn’t ask you, but we’re almost out of money. We have no supplies put ahead and. . . .”

In better times I would never have gone on like this. Mr. Stenger sets the mop aside and reaches under his white pharmacist coat for his wallet.

“No, I didn’t mean that! I have never asked for handouts. I just need a job.” He pulls out a two-bit piece and forces it into my hand. I have no choice but to accept it or the coin will fall in his bucket.

“Don’t tell the missus,” he says, going back to his work. “You see what even a trained pharmacist has come to—I now mop my own floors.”

“I could do it. I would be glad to.”

“The store is closed now, Miss Myers.” He rings the water out of his mop and swishes it across the wooden floor, almost chasing me out, and we’re both so embarrassed I don’t say good-bye.

Despite the fact that this twenty-five cents will help keep us going for another week, it burns in my hand, and my cheeks burn too. How embarrassing! And Mr. Stenger’s calculation of my ability to get work is more dismal than I imagined. I blink back the tears, ashamed by my weakness, and step off the sidewalk.

That’s when it hits me. The passenger-side door of the Pontiac is half open and Dr. Blum is gone.

Lost

“Mr. Stenger!” I run back to the pharmacy and pound on the glass door. The pharmacist opens it, but holds the orange cat back with one foot. “The doctor! He’s disappeared. I hate to ask you, but can you help me find him? He could get run over or hurt by someone who doesn’t understand his problem.” I wring my hands like a heroine in a silent movie.

“Now, now, Miss Myers. Don’t cry. Liberty isn’t very big. We’ll find him.” He slips off his lab coat, locks up the pharmacy, and joins me on the cracked walk. “He can’t have gone far. You head down to the courthouse and ask the fellows on the steps. I’ll head up toward the church.”

Frantically, I hurry along past the closed sweetshop, the closed dry goods shop, and the volunteer firehouse, but Isaac has vanished! How many times have I wished to be free of him, now he’s gone! I should have been watching him closer.

Embarrassed, I ask the men lounging on the benches if they’ve seen a strange fellow in a white shirt and tie, with a vacant look, walk by. They all shake their heads and look at me funny so I turn and run back to the car.

Where could the doctor have gone? Like Mr. Stenger says, Liberty’s not a very big town. You can pretty much see the length of Main by standing out in the street. Could he have wandered down an alley?

Just then I spy Mr. Stenger leading the doc by the arm in my direction.

“Where did you find him?”

“He was in the soup line down at the Saved by Faith Baptist Church, three blocks away. The fellows weren’t sure if he smelled the hot food or just wandered there by accident, but one of the drifters gave him a cup and pushed him in line. They could see there was something wrong with him, thought maybe he was deaf and dumb.” The doctor still carries an empty tin cup and there’s food on his face.

Stenger eyes the cup. “No one knew he was a physician, thought he was a bum just panhandling through town, until he got up to the front of the line and two of the church ladies serving food recognized him. They’d heard you were back so they sat him in a chair with a cup full of beans and that’s where I found him.”

“He fed himself?” I ask, amazed. “He hasn’t done that since he took his spell.” Stenger doesn’t get the significance. “You fed yourself!” I say to Blum, almost laughing, but he doesn’t seem to hear.

***

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