“It’s a mental illness. It’s like when a soldier comes back from the war and just quits talking and withdraws into himself.”
“Terrible.” “How awful.” “Poor Dr. Blum,” the hens cluck.
Finally, I’m done. Ida May shoves me under the dryer and a half hour later, pulls me out and presses in the waves with her expert fingers. The shop is nearly empty now, with only one gray-haired woman waiting for a trim.
“You look just lovely,” Ida May tells me, sweeping the floor. “A darn sight better than when you came in.”
I give her a smile and the half dollar I owe. I wish I could tip, but that just won’t do. Outside, I glance at my reflection in the window of the House of Beauty. The salon owner is right. I look a lot better than when I came in.
“Ma’am.” The uniformed gentleman crossing Main, gives me a salute. “Do you remember me?”
“I do, of course. You’re with the White Rock CCC camp.”
“You’re the local health nurse. Nurse . . .”
“It’s Myers. Nurse Myers.”
“Captain Wolfe,” he introduces himself. “May I walk with you?”
“I’m just on my way to Bittman’s Grocery where I have a part-time job delivering groceries.” Again I notice the limp as we stroll along. It’s his left leg, I realize, and he may wear a brace.
“Have you given any thought to helping us out at the camp? Dr. Crane from Camp Laurel only comes twice a week. You could come another two days. Then we’d have coverage more often than not.” We pause on the sidewalk outside the grocery and my thoughts are interrupted when a family comes out with a basket of groceries and I have to move.
These are folks I don’t know, a short man who, by the look of the blue scar on his forehead and the black grime under his fingernails, is probably a miner; his rail-thin wife, who wears a plaid dress that’s seen better days; and two little boys in droopy striped overalls.
“Howdy,” the man says, but the woman says nothing and looks away.
“I’ve heard the boys in the camps are pretty rough. People say some are ex-cons. Does that sound like a safe environment for a lady?” I ask.
“That’s not true. Some are rough around the edges but no one is mean and no one who has a criminal record is allowed in the CCC. You’d be safe; I’d guarantee it. Besides, we could fill up your gas tank each time you came. We keep a big tank for the trucks and graders. You have a good vehicle? It would be a great service to the boys”—here he pauses for effect—“and the country.”
I can’t help it; I laugh and shock myself with the sound, realizing how little I laugh lately.
“The country?” I look up into his eyes, which are green with tiny flecks of gold around the pupils.
“Yes, you know: My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.” We are definitely flirting now.
“Sweet liberty!” I spread my arms out and realize that, despite my age and the wrinkles around my eyes, to this man from the camp, with my new finger wave and my yellow dress, I must be a sight for sore eyes, a stage star from Broadway right here in Liberty.
“Seriously, Miss Myers, we really need someone. The young men get injuries and sores that don’t heal. I’ve driven to Torrington twice with kids who didn’t really need to go to the hospital, but had to be seen by someone. If I can set up a meeting with the director on Thursday, will you come and interview? It might become a part-time job.”
“Okay,” I tell Captain Wolfe. “I promise I’ll visit, maybe even Thursday, but I have other responsibilities—my grocery deliveries and a disabled man I care for. I would have to figure out what to do with him.”
“I understand. All I ask is that you come for an interview.” He salutes me smartly and limps away. I watch as he goes, wondering how he was injured, and if he, like my late husband, David, has nightmares of war.
Writing on the Wall
As I push through the glass door of the grocery store, I’m surprised to find pregnant Lilly downstairs sorting apples. Her quick, small, sensitive fingers feel for the bad spots and on each side of her she has a box, one for the perfect apples, another for the bruised.
“Lilly Bittman! What are you doing out of bed?”
“Oh, Becky Myers! I can’t just lie around all the time. I haven’t had any pain for a week and I have to do something. Anyway, who would tend the store while my husband is out making deliveries—”
Here, she pulls herself up, leans on the counter, and takes a deep breath. The light brown grocer’s apron she wears almost drags on the floor and her sightless eyes roam the air in front of her. “I’m sorry. B.K. was going to tell you. He has to do the deliveries himself now. Money’s that tight. The family that just left the store . . . They were here for thirty minutes, looking at the price of everything and finally left with two pounds of red beans and a sack of half-rotten apples that I threw in to be kind.
“We can still use you every now and then on Tuesdays when the shipments from Torrington come in and B.K. can’t leave the store. I’m real sorry,” she says again. “I know you need the money too.”
I let out a sigh. “It’s okay.”
The truth is, I’m devastated. Without the delivery job, the doc and I can’t make it. Sometimes there’s money in helping at births, but it makes me so tense, I’d rather starve. Captain Wolfe’s offer suddenly sounds very interesting, especially if there’s money in it.
To change the subject, I go on the offensive. “You really should be upstairs, Lilly. It’s okay to get up to use the commode or make yourself a sandwich, but I worry about you moving around too much. You aren’t lifting those heavy boxes, are you?”
“Oh, no. B.K. fixed me up before he left. Your hair looks nice, Miss Becky. Been to Ida May’s?”
I touch my head, remembering the luxury of the trim and perm at the salon, a luxury I now wish that I’d gone without, but how does the blind woman know where I’ve been?
“You’re wondering how I can tell you’ve been to Ida May’s? It’s easy. By the smell of the perm! Who were you talking to outside? I heard laughter. That’s rare nowadays.”
Here my smile is genuine. “That’s right. The man was Captain Wolfe from the Civilian Conservation Corps. Did you hear us?”
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