All day, I thought about Becky’s problem. I had a little money saved from the wooden bowls I crafted on the lathe that Hester sold for me at the flea market in Delmont. There were three cars in the drive . . . Becky needed the Pontiac to get to work. Hester needed his Model T to make his rounds, but I figured Patience wasn’t going anywhere, so that left the Olds for me.
I let Becky put me to bed just as usual. I could do it myself, of course, but I like her to touch me. So gently she holds my chin and opens my mouth to brush my teeth, then pushes my hair from my eyes. I lie on my back and she straightens my pillow and pulls up the covers. For just a split second, her breast brushes my chest as she bends over me, but she doesn’t notice. She’s a nurse and I’m just a patient to her.
Before sunrise, I made my move and tiptoed downstairs with my good clothes on. Not wanting to alert the household, I pushed the Oldsmobile out into the road before I turned on the ignition.
Getting Trustler’s X-ray result was easy. I’d driven to Pittsburgh plenty of times when I used to take Priscilla shopping. Funny how things come back to you, just like when I did Patience’s surgery. The body remembers. The hands remember.
At West Penn Hospital, when I introduced myself as Dr. Blum and said I was from White Rock CCC Camp, the report was handed over without question. It took all of three sentences to get what I came for. Coming home was more difficult.
I ran out of gas at the West Virginia border and had to walk ten miles back to Uniontown, Pennsylvania, but the Texaco station was closed. Then it took me three hours to find a farmer willing to sell me five gallons of gas and I had to walk the ten miles back.
I arrived home to a dark house about two A.M., took off my shoes, dropped the folder on the kitchen table, and cat-walked up the stairs to bed. I was never in the military, but I now know how soldiers must feel when they make it back to camp. As I fell asleep I smiled to myself. Mission accomplished.
“I’m sorry I’ve been so withdrawn. The thought of Drake having tuberculosis was really upsetting me,” Captain Wolfe opens up. “My wife died of TB, but silicosis, that’s different. There’s hope.”
We are in his sedan, driving to Torrington to pick up Drake Trustler and I am elated. Silicosis, I’ve read, is serious, but at least it’s not communicable, and Drake can come back to the camp.
“I didn’t want to do it,” he goes on, stroking his scarred cheek, and for the first time telling me about his dead wife. “I didn’t want to put her in the tuberculin asylum, but the doctors said it was her only chance. The cool mountain air would soothe her lungs and isolating her would keep me from getting it.
“I drove her up to Cresson near Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in the middle of winter. It was the nicest sanatorium I could find. She had her own room and everything. Caroline was a teacher, an elementary school teacher, and she loved children, though we never had any ourselves, a beautiful, delicate woman. They say that happens. The good die young. . . .”
He looks over with tears in his eyes and it strikes me that the man is still in love with his wife. I think about my husband, David. Do I still love him?
The captain goes on. “I went up to see her every other week and the last day is like a hand-tinted photograph imprinted in my mind. It was a beautiful spring day, but something was off, the yellow of the forsythia was too yellow, the grass was too green, the red on her handkerchief too goddamn red.
“I left with a bad feeling and the next day she died, died alone.” The captain wipes his eyes. “If Drake had had TB, I couldn’t have stood it.” After that there’s silence.
“Drake can’t stop talking since he’s been back at the camp. It’s like he’s been given a new life,” Boodean confides later that afternoon when we’d sent Drake over to the cookhouse for supper.
“Well, I’m sure he was worried about TB. Everyone knows tuberculosis is incurable. The thing is, Boodean . . . ” Here I lower my voice. “Silicosis isn’t much better. It’s not contagious, which is a plus, and the deterioration is slower, but in the end . . .” I stop, hoping my meaning is clear enough.
A few minutes later, Drake comes back into the infirmary whistling. His color is better, he gained five pounds while in the hospital, and we intend to keep the weight on. Mrs. Ross even got him some smaller uniforms so he doesn’t look like a scarecrow, and she plans to bring him pound cake that’s full of eggs and cream from her farm every week.
“From now on, until it gets warmer, Drake, I want you to sleep in the clinic, and the major says you can be Mrs. Ross’s assistant, sending out the twenty-five-dollar checks to the boys’ families and doing other little jobs for her.”
Drake just chews his gum and smiles.
“Then in a couple of weeks, the captain plans to station you in the new fire tower during the day, a nice easy job, so you can get your strength back and continue to heal. A corpsman from the motor pool will drive you up with your lunch, and you’ll sit in the lookout station with a shortwave radio and binoculars, looking for signs of smoke and calling in anything suspicious.
“That’s swell, Nurse Becky. I know I’m blessed that I don’t have TB. I was pretty sure you’d have to send me to one of those sanatoriums, like where my grandpap went to die.”
“March through May is fire season,” Boodean interjects, “and the fire index is higher this year because we didn’t get the heavy snows, so it’s not like this job is a piece of cake.
“Before the oak and maple leaves pop out and provide shade, the forest floor is as dry as a tinderbox. One spark from a steam engine or an untended fire and it’s all over. Thousands of acres can burn in a day.”
“That’s why us boys are ready and trained,” Drake adds with pride. “It’s part of the CCC mission . . . to stamp out forest fires. Yee-ha!” He laughs, proud, but still making fun of himself.
Today is April Fools’ Day and the doctor and I have been home in the little house at the end of Wild Rose Road for three days. It was hard coming back. I miss the Hesters, but Patience is well and doing fine; in fact she attended a birth on her own the day I went into Torrington. An easy one, she told me, right on the outskirts of Liberty, so she didn’t have to drive too far. It was Ida May’s cousin Betty Lou Cross, having her third, and now all the women on Patience’s list are delivered. In a way this gives me peace, but also a feeling of emptiness, like something important has gone out of my life.
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