It’s been more than a week since we moved into the little house at the end of Wild Rose Road and we are slowly getting adjusted. I’ve replaced the glass in the broken window and repaired the roof. Patience and Dr. Hester generously brought over a box of linens, dishes, a rocking chair they found in the barn, and two braided rugs. They also gave us a basket of meat, eggs, milk, and bread, which we needed badly.
Now, Dr. Blum and I sit on a wooden bench on the porch while I sort through the dandelion greens I’ve picked for our midday meal.
“It seems wrong that I have to eat the weeds that other people pull out of their front yards . . . like I’ve failed somehow,” I say to my mute companion.
Blum’s expression is as blank as the blue sky, but I shrug and keep talking. “I know there are people poorer than us, but just look at you. You’re wearing some of Daniel’s old work clothes, a flannel shirt with a hole at the elbow and frayed denim pants. I’m wearing a pair of stained slacks and an old sweater, torn at the waistband.”
I stop myself and stare out across the fields. . . . “No, that’s wrong. I have to stop feeling so sorry for myself and try to look for the positive.
“For example, look at the base of the old oak where daffodils are blooming in clusters, and in the distance see how the river glimmers in the morning light. There is always the Hope.” I think this is funny, and when I look over at Blum, for a moment he appears to share my amusement, but I’m probably wrong.
“Okay, Dr. Blum,” I start out at breakfast. “I can’t put it off any longer. This morning we are going into town to find some kind of work.”
To get ready for my job-hunting expedition, I settle on a brown skirt, a yellow middy, and brown flats. My town clothes are a little out of date, but of good quality, and I worry that I won’t look as desperate as I truly am. I also worry about the doctor, unsure what I will do with him if I do get a job, but decide I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. At the last minute I spiff him up too, with a shirt and a tie.
Our trip into Liberty is uneventful until we cross the Hope River. Just before the bridge, a large newly constructed billboard confronts us.
“JOBLESS MEN KEEP MOVING. WE CAN’T TAKE CARE OF OUR OWN. —LIBERTY CHAMBER OF COMMERCE.” I read the sign out loud and cringe, wondering how people will respond to a jobless woman. As in most small towns, people get employment through family and friends, but we have no family and not many friends.
The first stop I plan to make is the grocery store, which thankfully is still open. (So many of the stores are not.) As I cross the bridge, a sleek red Packard with a silver winged goddess on the hood comes up behind us and honks. Why such a hurry?
On Main Street, I pull up to the curb and watch as a driver in black exits the Packard and opens the back door. A woman of about fifty, wearing a white coat and hat, gets out and waltzes into Ida May’s House of Beauty. She trails a fur stole, and it occurs to me she could be a movie star, but then why would she be in Liberty?
“Okay, Dr. Blum. I have to go into the general store. You must stay here. Do not move from this seat! Do you understand?” I slow my speech, pounding out each word, take his chin in one hand, and turn his face to mine. “Do you understand? Don’t move!” Of course he makes no response, and why do I think he would?
The little bell on the glass door of Bittman’s Grocery rings when I open it, but there’s no one behind the counter and many of the long wooden shelves are bare. “Hello!” A man wearing a clean, worn brown apron steps out of the back carrying a case of canned pork and beans.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Bittman,” I say, and put on a bright face. “Do you remember me, Becky Myers? I was the home health nurse in Union County a few years ago.”
“Yes, of course. My wife, Lilly, went to your baby classes with our first child, and you were friends with Mrs. Blum. I was sorry to hear of her death and . . .” Here he hesitates. “And the doctor’s infirmity. Mr. Linkous was in and told me what happened.”
The grocer is a tall, lean thirty-year-old with arms so long his wrists show at his cuffs. He has brown hair and brown eyes, and at a distance could be a ringer for the actor Gary Cooper.
“Infirmity is putting it nicely, because he can’t speak or do anything for himself. I hoped by bringing him home, he might heal, but so far, there’s little change.”
Bittman clears his throat and squints. “I heard about the mix-up with the bank and the doctor’s house, and we are right sorry for that. Mr. Linkous feels bad too.” He looks around the empty grocery. “You probably noticed, we’re one of the last places open . . . but we’re still holding on.” Here he picks up a rag and starts wiping the counter, studying the pitted wood as if there were some spot that needed polishing.
“The doctor and I are living in Patience Murphy’s old place. . . . I’ll need a few pounds of white beans, a small ham bone, and a tin of lard . . . two pounds of flour and an onion. How much will that be?”
“One dollar and five cents. The ham bone is only nineteen cents a pound, a good deal.”
I make my purchases, still trying to get up my nerve to ask about work. Silence swallows the air between us. Finally, I spit out the words. “Do you know of any jobs, Mr. Bittman? I don’t mean just nursing, anything at all. I’m our sole support now. . . .” I trail off and then add, almost under my breath, “I would even work in trade, take barter instead of cash. . . .”
“I’m sorry, Miss Becky. There’s no work anywhere. You see how it is. Even able-bodied men can’t find anything. Half the county has moved on. . . . Hey, Junior,” he calls. A little kid with red hair sticks his head though the open door of the back room.
“Bring out that box of apples for Miss Becky.”
“No, please. I can’t afford them.”
“Oh, there’s no charge. They’re headed for the trash or Mr. Mintz’s pigs. Bottom of the barrel went bad and spoiled, but if you cut off the rotten places you can make some nice applesauce. I’ll carry them out to your car.”
“Well, thank you. Thank you so much. I’m sure we’ll love them,” I murmur as we load the crate into the trunk. Bittman stares at the doctor through the passenger window, then taps the glass.
“Howdy, Doc.” When there’s no response, he taps again and then shrugs. “You take care now, Miss Becky, and don’t be a stranger.”
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