From the skein, she snips off a prickly length of twine. Shell count to ten no, twenty then allow a quick peek up. By then, she thinks, hell be right here. Here.
Shes at twelve doubting she can last eight further counts when a ladys treacly voice says, Frieda Mintz?
Instinct almost makes Frieda deny it. She hates to hear her name asked as a question. In a tiny, grudging tone she says, Im her.
Good, then. Wonderful. How easy.
Get on with it, Frieda wants to say.
Get on with it and get the heck away from my counter so I can be alone when Felix shows.
The lady has a damsels braids the color of a dusty blackboard, as though her schoolgirl self was aged abruptly. Her smile shows a neat set of teeth. Im sorry to have come to your workplace, she says, but its all the information we were given. Is there somewhere we can speak more privately?
Only now does Frieda see that Felix isnt coming, that her visitor is who? How does this stranger know her name? The pressure in her joints pinches tight. No, she says. Ive got to stay. Im working.
But I really must speak with you, Miss Mintz.
I had my break already, Frieda says.
Then I guess well just have to talk here. The woman shivers slightly, hunch-shouldered and indignant, like someone caught suddenly in the rain. Im Mrs. Sprague. Im with the Committee on Prevention of Social Evils Surrounding Military Camps.
The long, daunting name is a gale that buffets Frieda, dizzying, disorienting. Evils.
Youre familiar with our work?
Frieda manages to mumble no.
Well, were trying to do our bit to win the war. For those of us who cant actually enlist ourselves and fight, that means supporting our boys in every way isnt that right?
Mrs. Spragues churchy tone reminds Frieda of the man who came into Jordans last Thursday to train a squad of four-minute speakers. (As if Boston needs another squad! At every movie hall and subway stop shes heard them, preaching in the same zealous accent.) When Frieda walked past the employees room at lunch, she heard the speech coachs red-blooded baritone (Whenever possible, address crowds in the first-person plural. It makes them feel invested, dont we think?) and the classs steel- trap response (We do!).
I said, isnt that right, Miss Mintz?
Frieda stares at her twine-roughened fingers. Suppose so.
You suppose. But do you really understand? The ladys smile widens, showing more tidy teeth. Too many girls too many pretty ones like you get their desire to help soldiers all mixed up with . . . well, with desire itself.
How does she know of Friedas longing for a soldier? Did she spy her with Felix at the ballgame? (The game was the only public place they went.) And heres something I bet you havent heard, says Mrs. Sprague. Have you heard that more soldiers are hospitalized now with social diseases than with battle wounds?
Frieda, in confusion, shakes her head. How could a disease be something social?
Most girls dont know that. Most dont want to. And if a soldiers hurt when he goes over the top, thats the price of freedom, and well pay it. But any man hit by this other kind of sickness well, hes crippled in his body and his soul. The last word seems to trigger something in the woman; she takes one of her gray braids and twists it round her thumb, as if remembering long-ago pain. A bullet wound can heal. Not a soul.
Copyright © 2007 by Michael Lowenthal. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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