I start up the Pontiac and roll down Main Street, past the closed shops, past the courthouse, the train station, the fire station, the water tower, and the Saved by Faith Baptist Church.
As we cross the stone bridge over the Hope, I feel Dr. Blum straighten and look down at the water. On the far side two men are fishing. They raise their hands in salute and I wonder if they recognize the doc or are just being friendly.
It hadn’t occurred to me, until now, that when people hear that Dr. Blum is back, they might expect him to restart his practice. I tighten my mouth. It isn’t often that I let myself feel the whole weight of his tragedy. Mostly I just do my duty as a nurse, puzzled and angry, wondering how I got into this.
I know the answer, of course. I just never thought it would go on and on. Now what can I do? Leave him on the steps of a poorhouse or abandon him to the state asylum for the insane? I’ve been in those hellholes, and you don’t do that to someone you care about.
As I turn onto Salt Lick, a wind comes up and I’m almost run into a ditch by a green truck, the kind that they used in the Great War, now filled with young men in khaki uniforms. When the guys see me, they yell out their catcalls. “Hey, baby!” “Hi ya, doll!”
CCC, CIVILIAN CONSERVATION CORPS, it says on the cab. As part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the feds are hiring young men from all over the country, giving them work to do in rural areas instead of going on the dole, and I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to see them here, even in Union County.
Their whistles give me a lift, but only for a minute. From a distance they can’t tell I haven’t put on makeup in two days nor washed my short dark hair since we left Perrysville. They can’t see the lines of worry and sadness around my brown eyes.
The shadows are long and it’s nearing six by the time we labor up Wild Rose Road, past the Maddock farm, where Sarah Maddock, the crippled woman, and her husband, an engineer, from Huntington, live. The Maddocks moved to her family’s place after she was brought down by polio some ten years ago.
At the end of the gravel lane, sits Patience Murphy’s home, a small two-story white cottage with a periwinkle blue door. The house was in no great shape when I last saw it, but it looks way worse now, and the picket fence that I used to love is gone. What’s more, Patience and Bitsy have let the yard go. The grass has grown up and a branch on the big oak in front swings in the wind like a broken arm.
“Hello!” I call, jumping out of the car, but Dr. Blum doesn’t follow. Unless I guide him, he won’t move at all, even if he’s hungry or thirsty or has to pee. He’s a wind-up toy, without volition, and I’m the winder.
When I step up on the porch and look through the cracked window, I see Patience’s old sofa, but no piano and no paintings on the wall. That’s one of the things that impressed me about the midwife the first time I came here, her display of original artwork, something you don’t see much in the mountains except in the homes of the coal barons, bankers, and railway executives. I also was interested in her small bookcase with two shelves of novels, children’s books, and medical texts.
It’s dawning on me now that no one lives here, but just to be sure, watching carefully for copperheads, I head out through the tall grass to the barn behind the house. The double doors creak as I peek in. What am I afraid I’ll find? Dead animals? The skeleton of a midwife I once admired hanging from the rafters? My imagination is too fertile. Always has been.
What I discover is . . . nothing. There are no signs of recent life, not a cow or a horse or even a chicken. Shafts of pale light shine down from the loft and the air smells of dust and old manure.
On the way back to the house a flash of lightning catches my eye and then the dark clouds growl, like dogs giving warning. Thunder is scaring the frost out of the ground. That’s what the old-timers say in Vermont.
With a sinking heart I must face the facts. Patience Murphy is gone. Then the rain comes, cold tears.
Last night, as soon as there was a break in the weather, I ran for the car and got some supplies. Then, after a cold supper that I’d packed before we left Perrysville, I put Dr. Blum to bed on the dusty sofa and I lay down with an old army blanket on a bare mattress upstairs.
Looking around, it’s clear that Patience and her friend Bitsy have been gone for months, probably years. There’s nothing in the kitchen cupboards, no pots or pans, only a few tiny mice droppings, and the house smells faintly of mold.
The wood cookstove is still here, as is the heater stove and an old metal lantern, but we have no dry wood to make a fire or kerosene for light. The midwife never did have a phone or electricity. As in most of rural America, the power and telephone lines haven’t reached into the hollows or up the mountains, and now with the Great Depression, the farmers won’t get them for years.
Luckily, I’d stowed a few candles in our emergency kit, and sometime after midnight, before I fell into a troubled sleep, I got out my nurse’s notebook and tried to think about our situation. It wasn’t good.
Problem: Two Adults. Impoverished and Homeless.
(I can’t believe I’m writing this about myself! How could this happen to a woman like me?)
One male physician, age 45, 6' 2" and 164 pounds at last weigh, fit enough but quite useless.
One female nurse, 42, 5' 4" and 128 pounds, with two college degrees but no survival skills. She’s not even a good cook.
Ten dollars and forty-five cents. (I actually got out of bed, opened my pocketbook, and counted the change again, wishing, like anything, that I’d taken Alvin up on his offer of a few dollars for assisting at his wife’s emergency delivery.)
Food: a half loaf of bread, a chunk of cheese, three apples, and a Hershey’s Bar left from our stop at the Four Leaf Clover Cafe.
Two heavy wool blankets from the trunk of the car.
Some medical books and equipment that I suppose we could sell, but who would want them?
I lay here, now listening to rain slash the side of the house and thunder roll away over Spruce Mountain and wonder what could have happened to Patience and Bitsy. There were rumors that the KKK was out to get them, and that thought makes me sick.
Somewhere in the house, water leaks through the roof, a steady drip, drip. Twice I hear the doctor moan in his sleep, and once I think he’s crying, but it stops.
This life of poverty is new for me; counting pennies, sleeping on a bare mattress without proper linens, not knowing what we will eat tomorrow or where we may go.
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