“Explain to me exactly how this happened,” I demand from Mr. Linkous, the attorney who has, for the past ten years, handled Dr. Blum’s affairs in Liberty. It’s only my training as a nurse that keeps me from screaming.
Isaac is seated at my side, immobile, hands balled up on his knees, eyes fixed on the attorney’s framed diplomas mounted on the wall behind his desk. (It’s so sad, really. When I first knew him, you could see his mind working in his very blue eyes, like minnows darting through a clear mountain stream.)
“Well.” The pale young lawyer clears his throat and flips his fountain pen back and forth between his fingers. “I was left in charge of paying Dr. Blum’s mortgage and taxes when he and Mrs. Blum joined his brother’s practice in Charlottesville, but last year he stopped sending funds. I wrote him three times.”
Here he frowns and taps a file on his desk that I assume holds copies of the correspondence. “I wrote to his brother too, November first, 1933, then I put a notice in the papers here and in Charlottesville on January first, 1934, but there was no response. Short of traveling to Virginia or paying the mortgage and taxes myself, there was no choice.”
“We were in Perrysville,” I snap, as if that makes a big difference. “It’s about thirty miles outside of Charlottesville.”
“The house, all its contents, his clinic, and two acres were put up for auction by Mountain Federal on . . .” Here he consults the documents again. “February twenty-fifth, 1934. Mr. Churchouse, an investor from Charleston, bought the property for a song. I’m sorry.” The prematurely balding attorney closes the folder, as if that puts an end to it.
“So we have no place to live? He has no home?” I’m getting a little hysterical now.
Linkous glances at the doctor, then back at me. “What happened?” he asks in a whisper. “I’m so sorry. Was it a stroke?”
I’m too upset to sugarcoat it. “The nerve doctors aren’t sure. Maybe a stroke, though they can’t determine the source of the damage. Maybe shock at his wife’s death.”
The lawyer’s dark eyebrows shoot up. “I heard about Mrs. Blum. A tragedy. She seemed a fine woman.” I know what he means. She was a looker.
Back in the Pontiac, I stare out the window at the boarded-up stores on Main Street. What now? Blum sits like a manikin from Levy’s Dry Goods. We have only ten dollars, not enough for gas to get back to Perrysville and no family that either of us can turn to. I have never felt so alone.
When I left Liberty four years ago, Wall Street had crashed and a few stores had closed, but farmers, miners, tradesmen, and their families still came to town for necessities. Now, all along Main, I see only two autos and one very swaybacked horse attached to a cart. For Sale signs are everywhere. At first glance there are only a few shops left open, the grocery, the barbershop, Stenger’s Pharmacy, and the Eagle Theater, but that’s apparently only on Saturdays. Farther down, there’s a bar with a neon sign and Ida May’s House of Beauty, but that’s all.
“Welcome home,” I reflect out loud, flopping my head back on the leather driver’s seat. I could be working at Walter Reed Hospital right now in a clean white uniform and a starched hat. Instead, I sit hunched in a cold car, nearly destitute, a caretaker of a mentally incapacitated ex-physician with no place to live and no place to go. It’s not like I’m Dr. Blum’s wife or sister, for god’s sake, I’m just his last friend, well, almost a friend—actually more of a colleague. I look over at the poor fellow and straighten his collar.
For a moment I consider renting two rooms at the Barnett Boardinghouse and trying to find work in Delmont, twenty miles up the road, but I know, just by looking at the number of men on the courthouse steps, that there will be no jobs there either.
The same out-of-work miners, loggers, mechanics, and laborers who were sitting on the benches four years ago, when I lost my job, are still here, only then there were only five or six of them. Today there must be twenty lounging about, smoking Luckies and corncob pipes, hoping for some kind of day work. I watch as one spits a wad of tobacco on the sidewalk, and it’s here the tears come. I really have no idea what to do next.
“Mr. Linkous should have at least taken us home to his house for the night,” I complain to my mute companion. I get no response, but I continue my one-sided conversation.
“After filling the gas tank three times, we have only ten dollars.” I scramble through my change purse, and add, “And forty-five cents. . . . Not enough to get us back to Perrysville, and anyway, where would we go when we got there? We still owe three months’ rent to the landlady and can’t ask for shelter from your brother.”
“We have the Pontiac, only six years old.” I take a deep breath and go over our assets. “We have two strong bodies. We have twelve years of higher education, but only one mind, between us.” Here my voice breaks and Blum looks over.
Then he speaks again, the second time in a year. “Patience.”
“Patience! Are you out of your mind?” At this, I actually smile because he truly is out of his mind. “If you think we can just sit here patiently on the corner of Sycamore and Main and someone will come to our rescue, you are sicker than I thought!”
Then I get it: Patience Murphy, the midwife.
Once again Blum amazes me. It’s like his once brilliant mind is hibernating, and for a moment it sticks its nose out of the cave and makes an observation.
The midwife of Hope River, Patience Murphy, was one of my only friends when I lived in Liberty four years ago. You’d think there’d be others, but for a single professional woman in a small mountain town, there weren’t many options.
A few people reached out to me when I first left the Coal Miner’s Mission at Scotts Run and took my job as the Union County public health nurse. The pharmacist Mr. Stenger and his wife invited me to dinner, but their five wild children drove me nuts, and I never followed up with a reciprocal invitation.
The schoolteacher, Marion Archer, took me shopping in Torrington, but she talked so much I couldn’t stand it. Then there was Priscilla Blum, Dr. Blum’s wife. She and Patience . . . they were my almost friends . . . and the doctor . . . but that was purely professional.
Patience Murphy and her young colored assistant, Bitsy Proudfoot, live only ten miles out of Liberty on Wild Rose Road. We can be there in thirty minutes. Maybe Patience will allow us to stay with her for a few days. I’d be grateful even to sleep in her barn.
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