“What’s wrong with an oil well? I see them along the road. Once the company drills, they just put in a pump, one of those rigs that go up and down. Gas is a byproduct and you could get it free to heat your house like a lot of farmers do. Some folks even heat their outhouse. Seems like a good deal.”

“Give them an inch, honey, they’ll take a mile! You see what they did to the Harrod farm on North Run?” I shake my head no.

“Brought in those big trucks and drilling machines, and now their road and fields are nothing but a rutted mess and that beautiful creek that used to have nice brook trout in it is dead from the muddy runoff. This farm is all I have left and they’re not going to ruin it!”

“Maybe you could go to the county assessor. They must have copies of the deeds. I hate to leave, Mrs. Stone. The tea was refreshing, but Dr. Blum is sitting out in the car.”

“Dr. Blum?” We step out on the porch. “Well, why didn’t you bring him in?”

“No, you don’t understand. Dr. Blum has had a misfortune. Physically, he’s fit, but he has no intelligence and I take care of him.”

Sparky Stone walks right up to the car and whacks the door to startle the doctor, but Blum doesn’t blink. “What do they say about him, his physicians?”

“Well, they don’t say much, just that’s he’s had a stroke or maybe he’s catatonic.”

“I’ve never trusted doctors. Never needed them much either,” Sparky comments, still staring at Blum. “Next time you come, Miss Becky, bring the man in.”

The old lady reaches through the open window and strokes Blum’s jaw with one bony finger, then turns his face to hers and looks into his eyes as if searching for something. I may have imagined it, but I swear light flies from her eyes to his, then Blum blinks and the curtain comes down.

Oranges

Back at Bittman’s an hour later, I check on Lilly, who’s being a good girl and staying in bed and then give B.K. his money. He writes the proceeds in his notebook and turns over my pay.

“It wasn’t too bad today. I enjoyed driving around the countryside and the people were nice, especially Mrs. Stone. She’s a character. You’ll want me Thursday, then?”

“Lilly is already writing down the deliveries.”

I look at the oranges arranged on a tray on the counter. “How much?” I ask longingly.

“Twenty-five cents a dozen.” B.K. rests his elbows on the wooden counter.

“No, I guess not. . . . I do need some basics, though, five pounds of cornmeal and three pounds of red beans. As I leave, Mr. Bittman wraps up six oranges.

“On the house,” he says.

I go out into the sunshine feeling rich with my carton of food and my bag of golden fruit, but as we cross over the Hope River I see a barefoot young mother with stringy brown hair, begging just this side of the bridge with her two raggedy kids clinging to her long skirt. This is something new. I have never seen a woman begging before, and she holds a crude sign: WILL WORK FOR FOOD.

What else can I do? I slow the auto and roll down the window, peel open my parcel, and hold out two oranges.

“God bless you, ma’am,” the young lady whispers. “We haven’t eaten all day. Can I do anything to repay you?”

“No. No, we’re fine.”

Afterward, I thought of the groceries in the back. I could have given her more.

Blum turns his face away, staring down at the water where it rushes over the rocks.

12

Lawn Party

Sticky with fruit juice, we sit in the shade of a weeping willow tree on an old blanket on the Hesters’ lawn. There’s the smell of newly cut grass and the scent of the red roses growing up the side of the porch.

Each of us shares a slice or two of our oranges with Danny and juice dribbles down his little chin. Daniel lies on his side petting Emma and Sasha, the two beagles he says were his wife’s dowry. The doctor and I lean against a bench across from them. Patience rests against the trunk of the tree.

“Is that the phone?” I ask. The double ring floats across the yard.

“Damnation.” The vet mutters as he sprints for the house.

“Excuse his French. He’s just tired,” Patience apologizes. “He was up with Mr. Earle’s sick cow last night, milk fever. Slept for a few hours today, but was hoping to have a quiet night.”

“Patience!” Hester yells from the stone porch. “It’s for you . . .”

With a long sigh, the midwife pushes herself up and plunks Danny Boy in my lap.

“Patty-cake. Patty-cake. Baker’s man.” I try to entertain him, taking his sticky little hands in mine and making them clap. “Make me a cake as fast as you can.” The vet ambles back across the lawn.

“Afraid she’s going to have to leave. Lately, one of us is always going. It’s hard. That’s why we haven’t been over to see you. It’s always something.”

A few minutes later, Patience returns with her birth bag in hand. “I wish I didn’t have to go. We were having such a nice time. Daniel and I don’t have much of a social life.”

“None,” cuts in Daniel.

“Want to come with me?” Patience brightens. “It’s Mrs. Mitchell. You know her. The one I told you about, the woman expecting twins. I could sure use a baby nurse.”

I go on alarm. This is exactly what I don’t want to do. I’d rather face Willa’s geese.

“I don’t think so, maybe another time. The doc and I were driving around all day toting groceries. I’d better get him home.”

“Blum can stay here,” Daniel offers, supporting his wife. “I have some work in the barn, mucking out stalls. He can help.”

“But Dr. Blum has his good clothes on,” I argue, still trying to get out of it.

“I have a pair of coveralls and old rubber boots.” That’s Hester again.

“Please! It will be fun. I’ll split my fee,” Patience pleads. “Well, I’ll split whatever I get. Sometimes it’s cash. Sometimes it’s food. Sometimes it’s nothing. I could even split nothing!” She thinks this is funny.

I haul myself up. “You know how I enjoy childbirth. . . .”

Patience can tell I’m wavering. “Please! It would help to have company.”

Daniel doesn’t wait for my answer. He balances his toddler on his shoulders and leads Blum away.

***

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