“I was thinking about the men and their signs,” I say, breaking the silence. “Do you think they were really looking for work or just wanted to make a point?”
“They could find work if they wanted to.”
“Do you think so? It shocked me, really. In Union County we see the traveling families with all their possessions strapped to their trucks, the hoboes camping down by the Hope River, and the men waiting for work in front of the courthouse, but they don’t seem truly hungry. Those men did.
“At least out in the country there’s a way to get food,” I continue. “There’s trout in the river, berries to pick, wild greens in the fields, deer in the woods, and the opportunity to plant a garden if you have a little plot of land.”
“Survival of the fittest,” Captain Wolfe says. “It’s each man for himself and his family. That’s why I like the CCC camps. Those boys want to work and they are willing to work hard, but the bums outside the hotel are just looking for handouts.”
“But they’re too old for the camps, in their forties and fifties. What do fellows like that do?”
“There’s the Public Works Administration. They’re building a new highway in Pennsylvania.”
“But everyone can’t get work with the relief programs. I’ve heard unemployment in West Virginia is over fifty percent . . . in a few counties, eighty.”
“Survival of the fittest,” Captain Wolfe says again, and then we are silent until we pass through Liberty and cross back over the Hope, where we can see the tents that are pitched in the shelter of the stone bridge. Men are huddled around campfires in the snow and mud. . . .
“The roads are bad. Do you think you should stay the night at the Hesters’ house and go home in the morning? You’d be welcome, I’m sure, but all we have is a sofa.”
“No, I’ll be fine. It’s clearing up.”
We slip sideways on Salt Lick as we plow through a drift, but finally make it home. As he walks me to the door an awkwardness closes around us.
“Well, I had a lovely time.” I thank my escort as I stand shivering on the walk and I’m surprised when he takes my hand.
“You’re a beautiful woman,” Captain Wolfe says. “Perhaps just a little too soft-hearted. . . .” When he smiles, his white teeth gleam in the porch light.
Norman pulls me to him, holds me against his chest, and I think I could rest there forever. Comfort. Safety. “You are a beautiful woman,” he says again.
When the low clouds open, the half-moon breaks out and illuminates the white world, a world of light and promise.
January 1, 1935
There’s something I don’t like about this man, Wolfe. “Captain Wolfe” Becky calls him. I watch the two of them from my dark bedroom upstairs, watch them stand in the snow after their return from the ball. She’s shivering in her thin wool coat and he takes her in his arms, holds her in the moonlight for a full two minutes.
Becky is too innocent. And I fear he will hurt her. Cut her tender heart open like an apple, and take a bite with his sharp teeth. When the captain walks away, I can hear his saber rattle against his injured knee.
It’s New Year’s Day and I think we all have the post-holiday slump. The house is quiet and there’s a center of gloom around Patience’s room. Each day I take her vital signs, listen to the baby’s heartbeat, and measure with my fingers how much the fetus has grown. I record the amount of fetal movement, the amount of bleeding, and whether there are any contractions.
The baby is strong, but Patience is not. When I really look at her, I notice that her face is drawn. Her skin is too pale. Her arms are too thin.
“So? What did you do then?” Patience questions me. I have just told her about the unemployed men picketing outside the Hotel Torrington.
“What could I do? There was a line of vehicles waiting and more people coming out of the hotel. We had to get in the auto and leave.”
“Well, you should have done something, at least given them a few coins?”
“Their signs said they didn’t want handouts. They wanted work, decent jobs.”
Patience let’s out a sigh and rubs her face. “It’s been so long since I’ve been anywhere but this bed, I forget how hard it is out there. So long as we have food and warmth, I think everyone else does.”
“Where do you want me to put this?” I’m holding up the beautiful gown.
The midwife shrugs. “It’s yours. Put it in your room.” I can’t tell if she’s mad at me for not doing something to help the jobless men or just upset because she can’t do anything.
“I’m sorry,” she explains. “I’ve just got the blues again and I’m envious of you, going out to help people, going to births, going to dances, meeting Mrs. Roosevelt. I feel like the Count of Monte Cristo, locked away in a dungeon.”
“I didn’t exactly meet Mrs. Roosevelt. She just stopped at our table and thanked us for representing Camp White Rock. She shook our hands and moved on. She shook everyone’s hand.”
“I know. You told me.”
Patience is lonely, discouraged, and bleeding again. Not a lot, just a little red on her pad. I look over at the calendar hanging on the wall next to her bed. On each numbered square, Patience has made an X, marking off the days like a prisoner. Now we face January—dark, cold, and lasting forever.
Captain Wolfe puts his dishes and silverware in the bin by the mess hall sink, then stops to chat with the cook, Starvation MacFarland. (I don’t know how the man got his name; no one is starving here!) The captain laughs at something Starvation says, then turns to look out across the mess hall.
We haven’t spent much time together or gone on another “date,” but every few days he comes by the infirmary to ask me if everything is going okay or if I need any more supplies, and once on a dry, sunny day when the temperature rose above fifty and we weren’t busy, he drove me up the back trail in a CCC truck to show me the wooden fire tower the men are building on top of White Rock Mountain.
I had never been up there before and the view of the mist and the mountains rolling on, ridge after ridge, took my breath away. Below us, the granite cliffs dropped two hundred feet, and in the distance steam rose from the ice-covered river.
Working on the tower above were eight young men, carrying timbers, balancing on scaffolding, hammering, sawing, bolting the wooden structure together. The fellows looked so small at the top, like little plastic soldiers.
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