Sunday Dinner

“These are some apple fritters, Isaac!” Daniel exclaims.

“More, please!” says Danny, agreeing with him. “More, with apple butter!”

There’s a cool wind outside and we’re sitting in the kitchen around the table in the little house with the blue door. Tomorrow is the burial in the new graveyard, and Dr. Blum cooked the meal.

“You’re going to put me to shame, man,” Daniel goes on. “All I can make is fried eggs and bacon.”

“Isaac has been feeding me very well. Somehow I just don’t feel like cooking.”

The doctor doesn’t say anything, but he smiles, and I realize how, despite the anger I had toward him about my journal, my feelings have softened. Maybe the fire melted my heart. With that thought, the tears come again and I have to leave the table.

Patience follows me out behind the barn where the graves are ready for the ceremony.

“Are you okay, Becky?” Patience asks when I wipe my eyes.

“I guess. I just can’t stop crying. It wasn’t like I was in love with Captain Wolfe, but we were close friends and maybe I could have loved him. And Drake Trustler, he was so brave and such a good spirit. I can’t believe he’s gone. The others I didn’t know well, but still it’s so sad.

“You should have seen the boys the day the of the blaze, Patience. The Forest Army went off in their trucks, singing as if the fire were a Sunday School picnic. I’m not kidding. They were singing Hi-de-hi-ho, never knowing the hell they would face. They were just kids really. I keep hearing their voices. Hi-de-hi-ho. Hi-de-hi-he.”

The midwife doesn’t say anything, just puts her arm around me as we stare into the empty holes, seven feet deep and seven feet long.

“But you know what really gets me? Willa. I cry for her and I cry for the baby and I cry for Alfred, the wife beater, who loved his little children so much he would walk through fire to save them.”

May 10, 1935

The day John Teeleman died, I left the operating suite like a man in a trance and was surprised when Priscilla ran up to me in the ER waiting room.

“How is he?” She grabbed at my coat sleeve.

“Who?”

“Don’t play dumb! John Teeleman, my lover.”

“How did you know?”

“When I went to the Inn to meet him, the bellman told me they brought him to Martha Washington Hospital. How is he?” she asks again and pulls at my lapels, her face so close I can smell the fear.

“He didn’t make it.” (I don’t mean to sound cold, but I’m just so exhausted it comes out that way.) “Bled out during surgery.”

“No!” Priscilla pounds on my chest, hits me over and over as she screams in front of everyone in the waiting room. “No! You killed him, you son of a bitch! You killed him on purpose!”

“It wasn’t like that, Pris,” I try to explain. “There were adhesions. Massive infection. He was already critical. We couldn’t stop the bleeding. . . .” But she rages on, not caring who hears.

“You killed him!” Every eye in the waiting room is on us, so I pull her roughly outside.

“You killed him. My only chance at happiness! You fucking waste of a man!” That’s when I slap her. It’s not like I meant to or even thought about it before my hand moved, but my palm makes a red mark on her cheek.

“Pris!” I yell, but it’s too late, she’s already running across the parking lot, careening carelessly, blinded by tears.

“Watch the ice, Doc,” Jackson, the colored maintenance man cautions as he lights a cigarette on the hospital loading dock. I don’t answer, but throw my black bag on the seat of my Pontiac and follow Pris’s little roadster out to Locust. By the time I make the turn, she’s a half mile ahead of me, disappearing fast.

Thirty minutes later, I cross the iron bridge over the James, pass through Perrysville, and pull into the drive of our brick home. I’m thinking I’ll beg her forgiveness, but her car isn’t there. It’s already on the bottom of the James River.

An accident they called it, but I thought differently and have never doubted she drove over the bank on purpose.

How long does it take a person to forgive himself? Two lives lost because of my stupidity. Maybe you will say I’m too hard on myself, but I was a hard man in those days, and I set my own punishment: death for a double murder . . . and for a coward who doesn’t have the courage to kill himself, death while alive, madness.

45

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

The turnout for the burials is more than we expected and I’m glad the four of us spent some time last evening constructing makeshift benches to seat the next of kin and older folk. There were horse-drawn carts and vehicles parked all over the yard.

The little Hucknell girls find Dr. Blum and cling to him, insisting he sit up front on the benches. Only the eldest, Sally, cries, and Isaac puts his arm around her and holds her close.

One by one, the coffins are lowered into the graves by the CCC men. There are eight freshly dug holes and nine dead, because we planned to bury the baby with his father, Alfred Hucknell.

Boodean is here and Starvation MarFarland, and Snake and Loonie Tinkshell and a few of the others, even Rusty on his crutches because, as he told me, even though he lost his foot, he wanted to thank Dr. Blum for saving his life. The new superintendent seems a little lost, but Lou Cross takes care of everything.

“Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.” Reverend Miller says a few words about death and heroes and reads the Scripture. I picture the ashes left from the wildfire sifting across the land, acres and acres of drifting gray ashes. The service closes as Mrs. Miller, wearing a long purple gown and a strand of pearls like Eleanor Roosevelt, sings a hymn and we all join in on the chorus. “Will the circle be unbroken? By and by, Lord, by and by? There’s a better home awaiting. In the sky, Lord, in the sky.”

Afterward, everyone gathers at the homemade tables for potato salad and baked beans, apple pie and cold milk and coffee. The Hazel Patch faithful are present and Mrs. Miller comes over and gives me a hug. The Bishop brothers and Cora are here. From across the crowd Cora winks at me and points to her belly. She’s wearing a new blue dress and her hair is done up on her head, like a proper lady. The CCC guys sit by themselves, all in uniform, until the Reverend and Sheriff Hardman go over and join them.

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