Dancing Dress

This morning when I take Patience her breakfast she looks rather blue. I’m sure it must be torture for an energetic person like her to lie in bed all day, but sometimes she gets under my skin. At nine A.M. she’s still wearing her flannel nightgown and her hair is a mess.

“About time to get dressed, isn’t it?”

“What’s the point, Becky? I won’t be going anywhere. Why bother? I’ll just stay in my nightclothes.”

“You think that will make you feel better?”

She has copies of the Socialist Worker all over the bed. It’s become her main interest, cutting out the reports about the labor unrest, stikes here, battles there. Recently she told me about a textile workers’ strike in Rhode Island, the largest one ever. There were 420,000 men and women on the streets.

“No, it won’t make me feel better.”

“So what will it be, then, the red frock or blue?” I indicate two housedresses hanging on pegs next to the window.

“Red, the blood won’t show,” she answers bitterly.

“Speaking of dresses, I have to find one. I’ve been invited to a dance.” My news has the desired effect.

“A date?” Patience pushes up in bed so suddenly, I worry she’ll start bleeding again. “Why didn’t you tell me? With who?”

“Calm yourself. It isn’t a real date. Captain Wolfe at the CCC camp asked me to go with him to a benefit for Arthurdale Community. You know, Eleanor Roosevelt’s pet project, the one that was in the newspaper. All the other men have wives, and when he said the First Lady would be there, I couldn’t say no. It’s New Year’s Eve, a long time from now. Do you have anything I could wear? Maybe I should have refused.”

“Are you kidding? You have to go. Think of it, the president’s wife right here in West Virginia! And she’s a real liberal crusader too! Leave it to me. I’ll come up with something.”

Later in the afternoon, I take a bucket of warm water upstairs and wash my friend’s hair, which cheers her considerably. “Any bleeding?”

“Not today.”

“Is the baby still moving?” Here she smiles, a burst of sunlight.

“Of course. As old Mrs. Potts would say, ‘The infant is right lively.’ I miss Mrs. Potts. Are you going to be my midwife, Becky? I know you love childbirth!”

Now it’s my turn to smile. “I guess . . . I visited Sarah Maddock yesterday. She thought she was pregnant. Hadn’t had a menstrual period for five months, but I don’t think she is.”

“Was she sad?”

“Yes, I think she was. Mr. Maddock seemed sad too, though he might have been relieved. He was so worried about his wife’s health. They both knew at forty-seven she had a chance of having a baby with problems. I told them they could go to the hospital in Torrington and have a test to be sure, but I doubt they will. The sad thing is, they thought they’d already felt movement, and I really think Sarah would like to be a mother. She’d had a baby before, did you know?”

“I did. She told me one day when we were having tea, but I’ve seen that before, women thinking they felt the baby when there was no baby. Probably a gas bubble.”

“That’s what I said. Is there something I should have done differently? I hated to disappointment them. What if I’m wrong?”

There’s a pause, long enough to hear a red-tailed hawk in the distance, and Patience pushes out a sigh. “I don’t think there was anything else you could do. She’s pregnant or she’s not, and either way, I think she’ll be okay. We are all stronger than we think.”

October 21, 1934

“We are all stronger than we think.” That’s what Patience said, but are we? Faced with grief and guilt, even the toughest person can crumble. I cite myself as an example.

I was never a sensitive soul. Thick-skinned, you might say. I took care of people, but didn’t particularly care about them, even Pris, my wife. She was a beautiful woman, and her beauty fascinated me, like a crystal ornament twirling in the sunlight, but I wouldn’t call it love. It’s only now that I can admit that.

24

Results

“I just hope none of the Bishops’ cattle have a positive test,” the vet worries as we bump down the rutted road onto the the Bishop farm. There’s a wet wind, but we’ve dressed for the weather, with knit caps, winter jackets, and long flannel underwear.

As they promised, the men have the animals ready in the barn, and all four of the Bishop brothers are present so there’s no job for me except to circumvent a fight.

“Cigarette?” Cora asks, holding out a pack of Pall Malls. Her light brown hair is long and lank with bangs down to her eyebrows, and her voice is low for a woman. Probably the cigarettes.

“No, thanks. I don’t smoke.” We’re sitting on a bale of hay watching the men work, and she puts the cigarettes away as if she’s made a social blunder.

“I’ve always been afraid to smoke,” I admit.

“My gran says it’s good for you, that the smoke clears your lungs.”

“Lots of people say that.”

“Hey, watch it, George!” Beef yells at a man who seems to be his younger brother. “You stomped on my foot.”

“Well, sorrrrrry!” George mocks him. It’s cold in the barn and steam comes out of his large red mouth.

“They say you’re a nurse.” That’s Cora.

“Yes, I work part-time at White Rock CCC Camp.”

“The Bishop men hate the CCC camp. Hate the boys there too. Say they’re a bunch of pansies, parading around in uniform as if they were some kind of heroes.”

“They’re just regular fellows, earning money for their families and staying off the streets. Young men get into mischief if they don’t have work to do.”

“The Bishops hate them because the camps are run by the government. They hate anything to do with the government, hate Roosevelt, hate Herman Kump, the governor. I hate them too. The feds killed my pa. He was a moonshiner, until they gunned him down. This was back during Prohibition.” The girl rattles on as if she’s had no one to talk to for months. “That’s how I came to live here. The Bishop brothers were moonshiners like Pappy and took me in when he died. Now I’m Aran’s woman. Do you think we could still have a baby? Him being older like?”

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