Excited, I yank Isaac up. “Come on, old buddy, let’s go home and search the house and the barn. Maybe there’s something we can use for a pole or a net, something we can use to get fish.”
I’m on a mission now, pulling the doctor along as we hurry through the willows and low brush up to the road. This time as we approach the corner of Salt Lick and Wild Rose, I see two vagrants searching through the rubble of the burned-out cottage, looking for metal that they can salvage and sell.
“Hey, lady. Hey, mister,” one of them yells. “Can you spare a dime? Or can you give a couple of working Joes, down on their luck, a bite of food?”
“Sorry,” I say. “We are poor ourselves and have nothing to share.” I turn over our empty basket to make my point. The truth is, I’m scared of them. The taller man with the full beard and the torn denim shirt stands up straighter.
“Well, bless you then, sister, you and your man. Don’t give up hope. That’s about all we have in these dark times.” He turns and heads for the river.
As soon as they are out of sight I walk slower, ashamed of myself for being afraid. It’s true we have little, but still we have more than they have. I just didn’t want them to follow us home.
When we get back to the farm to search for a fishing pole, I discover a wealth of other tools I’d overlooked. Hanging on one of the walls in the barn, I find a scythe that could be sharpened and used to cut grass, a hammer, some nails in a tin can, another bucket, a rake . . . but no fishing pole.
Disappointed, I return to the house and find Dr. Blum sitting on the front steps with both a net and a pole. Not only that, there’s a hook and a line!
“Isaac, you amaze me. Where did you find it?”
“Under,” he says pointing toward the porch, and I think he’s as surprised as I am to hear his own voice.
“You can talk, Isaac. You can talk if you want to,” I tell him. “It’s okay. I get lonely sometimes.” But the curtain is already down and the lights are turned off.
Purple Iris, Pale Lilac
“Miss Becky! Miss Becky!” The girl named Sally calls from across the swinging bridge. We are on a first-name basis now, and this is my third trip to the Hucknell house. “Can I help you?” she asks.
“Sure.” I hand her my box when I get to the end of the swinging bridge. (I’ve got the knack of crossing the metal-and-wood contraption now, just roll with the rhythm like a sailor on the sea.)
“What did you bring us?” The little girls swarm around like a flock of sparrows.
“Whatever your mama ordered,” I respond. “I don’t look in the boxes. Mr. Bittman, the grocer, packs them.”
“How are you, Willa?” I greet the children’s mother on the porch as I wipe my sweating face and arms with a handkerchief.
I let that pass. In the mountains “about half” means you aren’t swell, but you don’t want to talk about it.
As usual, despite the heat wave, Blum takes his place on the porch with the four little girls. Sally has taken to reading to him from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and he sits there like one of the family.
“Got a pot of coffee brewing?” I ask as I open the screen door.
“Cream?” Willa asks, not her usual talkative self. I pull out one of the wooden chairs. Taking a break with Willa has become a weekly routine and I admire this woman who is raising her daughters and caring for the farm with her husband away.
“So how’s it going?” I start the conservation. Willa shrugs and when she flips her long blond hair back, I see bruises along the side of her face.
“Willa!” I point to the area.
“Your face and neck.”
“What?” When she covers her neck with her hand, the sleeve of her worn blue-dotted dress falls back and I see more discolorations on her white skin. Purple iris. Pale lilac.
“Willa, what happened?”
“It’s nothing. The old man was home.” She turns toward the sink so I can’t see her face.
“Your husband? He was home? He didn’t hit you in the stomach did he?”
“No, he wouldn’t hit me there. He knows I’m pregnant again and he thinks it’s a boy.”
“But what got into him? I thought when he came home it was a happy time for you and the girls.”
“The children maybe. They love their daddy.”
“And you? I thought you loved him.”
She turns and looks right at me now. “Sometimes I do, but not today. Would you love a man who makes you get all dolled up and does this to you? He’s angry all the time and he takes his anger out on me. Each time we do it, he gets rougher in bed. He’s in town now, probably getting loaded, throwing away money we need.”
I listen with a poker face. It’s something you learn when you are a nurse. Even if the wound is deep and infected, even if it smells bad, you don’t let your revulsion show.
“You can’t go on like this, Willa. He could really hurt you sometime.” Or kill you, I’m thinking. “And the girls. Do the girls know?”
“Oh, yeah. I’m sure they know. He treats me bad during the day, especially if he’s had a little hooch, and he treats me worse at night. That’s where he has me. I never cry out. He knows I won’t. It would scare the kids.
“We used to be goofy for each other, you know, but now he worries about money and losing the farm. Then he drinks.”
“You told me that he works for the PWA on the highway.”
“No, he quit there. He’s home for a few days, then he’ll start a different job at Bear Run, a laborer’s position, hauling rock, building a new home for Mr. Kaufman, the big-shot department store owner in Pittsburgh. It’s harder work, but a little better pay.”
There’s a ruckus on the porch. “It’s my turn.” Susie and Sunny are fighting over Dr. Blum.
“You sat in his lap last time!” Sunny clings to the doctor’s shirt, almost pulling it off. Susie has tears in her eyes. Sally and Sonya are howling with laughter, but Isaac just sits there, like the monument of Abraham Lincoln.
“Oh, holy bejeezus!” Willa curses, leaping out of her chair. “Those vixens are so starved for manly attention, they’d follow the mailman into town. I don’t know what I’m going to do with them. . . . Girls! Off!” she hollers and scatters the children away with a broom.
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