“No, we just need a fill-up and some kerosene, but can you check the oil?” I notice the prices on a handmade cardboard sign: 10 CENTS A GALLON FOR GAS. 5 CENTS FOR KEROSENE. CASH MONEY! NO CREDIT!
A few minutes later, I pull out my ten-dollar bill to pay for the gas and feel ridiculous. Loonie looks at the paper money, looks at me, and then without saying anything walks into the station to get me my change. It takes him five minutes. Damn, now he will think I’m a moneybags.
Just because I feel bad, I tip him two dimes, but then I feel worse. In a couple of weeks, I’ll need those coins.
I am surprised when I enter the Bittman’s Grocery to find more shoppers than last time. Two women and a man move up the three aisles in slow motion, probably trying, like me, to maximize the nutrition they can get with their meager cash. One woman carries a pale thin child with a cleft lip on one side, and I shiver remembering the first baby I delivered. The little boy reaches out when they pass the pickle barrel, but doesn’t make a sound and the mother pulls his hand back.
I step up to the counter. No point looking at things we can’t afford. B.K. Bittman greets me in his brown apron. His short dark hair sticks up like he forgot to comb it and his hazel eyes have a worried, haunted look.
“Miss Becky, how can I help you?” he says in a monotone.
“Good morning, Mr. Bittman.” I fumble in my jacket pocket, looking for my short list. “How’s Lilly?”
B.K. holds my gaze. “Poorly. Did you know she’s in the family way?”
“Yes. The midwife told me.” I don’t need to explain which midwife; there’s only one, since Mrs. Potts passed away and Bitsy moved to Philadelphia.
“Could I see Lilly? I told Patience I would stop by.” I set my little leather nurse’s bag on the counter as if this makes my visit official.
“Yes, sure. We’d appreciate it, but just so you know, I can’t afford to pay. Can I gather the things on your list while you visit?”
The grocer opens a door to the rear and shows me up a set of steep wooden stairs that lead to the couple’s apartment.
“Lilly, honey,” he yells, “Miss Becky, the home nurse, is on her way up.”
“Hello,” I call, entering a kitchen with a sink full of dishes, leftovers still on the table, and a back door that leads down another set of stairs to the alley.
“I’m in here.” Lilly’s voice draws me toward a bedroom where a pale young redhead sits up in bed, a book on her lap and three books on the bedside table. The startling thing is her eyes, aqua blue. She turns in my direction, though I know she can’t see me. The books are in Braille.
“Miss Becky. It’s so nice to have you back.” She reaches out for my hand and her soft fingers run up and down my wrist, her way of connecting since she can’t meet my eyes.
“Thank you,” I answer formally. “Most everyone has been very nice, but it’s been a hard landing. I thought the economy was bad near Charlottesville, but it’s much worse here. I can see people are really suffering. Anyway, enough about me! How are you? Patience said you’re pregnant again. I take it this is a good thing?” Here I raise my eyebrows waiting for her response and glance at her small protruding abdomen. It’s strange to use my face to convey concern when Lilly cannot see it.
“Yes, we were very happy. It took five years to get pregnant last time, four years this time and we were wondering if it would ever happen again. Now I’m not sure. I mean, we still want the baby very much, but you heard about the cramping. I’m afraid I’m going to lose it.
“B.K. and Patience insist I stay in bed and they’re probably right, but there’s so much to do. Did you see the kitchen? The housework has gone to the devil, and B.K. needs help in the store . . .” She shrugs. “And . . . and if I’m going to lose the baby anyway, I might as well get up.”
“Have you been to the doctor’s in Torrington?”
“Yes, I went there a few weeks ago to see the specialist, Dr. Seymour. He wanted to admit me, but Boone Hospital has become a rat hole. There’s no money for upkeep. You even have to bring your own pillow and, anyway, we couldn’t afford it.” She’s still stroking my wrist. Back and forth. Back and forth.
“And then there’s B.K. He’s wearing himself thin. I can’t see him, of course, but I feel him, his ribs sticking out. He’s trying to hide it from me, that the store’s in trouble, losing money. I used to tend things when he did deliveries, but I can’t anymore. They call this the Great Depression, but it’s not just the economy, it’s everything.” I see the tears in her unseeing eyes and she wipes them away.
Getting down to the point of my visit, I change the subject. “So how bad are your pains? Any bleeding or leaking of fluid?”
“The tightening comes and goes. It’s worse when I get up and sometimes my back hurts. The baby’s still moving, so I know it’s alive. No water leaking. My last baby was born in the caul, so I guess I make strong water bags.” She lets go of my wrist and puts her hands across her belly, holding the new life in. “Do you want to feel it?”
“Oh!” I say when the fetus bumps my hand. Then I pull out my stethoscope, place it on Lilly’s lower abdomen, and consult my watch.
“The heartbeat is strong, a hundred and thirty-five beats a minute. I think if you stay in bed, there’s a good chance all will be well. When is your confinement? Do you know?”
“Patience says I’ll have the baby in the fall, but my God, I can’t lie around that long. Bittman’s Grocery is a two-person operation. We’ve been thinking of finding a deliveryman. That would take the pressure off B.K. and I’d feel better about staying in bed. The problem is they’d have to have a good vehicle. Most of the guys without jobs don’t have reliable transportation.”
I go on alert, like a hunter who has just seen a four-point buck. “How much could you pay?”
“Do you know someone? They’d need chains for the winter.”
“I’m thinking of me. I have a six-year-old Pontiac. We have chains and I could do the deliveries. Dr. Blum, you probably heard, is disabled now, but he could carry the heavy boxes and I’d be careful to not let him scare people. What do you think?”
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