Excerpt from Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Charity Girl

by Michael Lowenthal

Charity Girl
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2007, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2008, 336 pages

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Frieda glimpses Mr. Crowley standing ten yards off, with the floorwalker from the Notions department. Can he hear? Does he see that she’s not wrapping? Twice last week he scolded her for minuscule infractions (sitting before her break, excessive laughter). What would he inflict for this transgression? “You’re scaring me,” she says to the strange woman. “Would you please leave?” She grabs a slip of tissue to stuff within a frock, but her fingers only fold the flimsy paper.

“No,” says Mrs. Sprague. “No, I can’t. It seems that your name and address — well, the fact that you work here — were given by a soldier to the Camp Devens guard — and then to our Committee on Prevention — when the soldier was found to be infected.”

“Infected?”

Mrs. Sprague colors and looks down, away from Frieda.

She plucks a mote of cotton from her sleeve. “You might have heard the layman’s terms. The pox. The clap.” Despite her lowered voice, the consonants resound; the smack of them seems to make her wince. “The soldier has reported that you were his last contact. We have to assume you were the source.”

But Frieda thought you had to “go the limit” to risk sickness — and she hasn’t, not with anyone but Felix. (Well, and Jack Galassi, but that was long ago.) “Felix?” she says. “I don’t . . . I can’t believe it.”

“I’m not at liberty to disclose the soldier’s name.”

Lou arrives with two piqué petticoats to be wrapped, and piles them onto Frieda’s growing backlog. She taps Frieda’s right shoulder: You all right?

Frieda nods, but the movement nauseates her. In the teeter of her panic she tries to summon Felix’s face; haziness is all that she can muster. His smell, though, storms upon her — pistachios, spilled spirits — and the agitated rapture of his kisses.

“Okay?” Lou says, this time aloud.

Before Frieda can answer, Mr. Crowley sees them huddled and he scowls; Lou returns to her customers.

“You’re lucky,” explains Mrs. Sprague. “Because you met this soldier outside of the moral zone, we don’t have authority to arrest you. And we can’t force a medical exam.” She peers at Frieda as if judging the future of a stained dress. Is it salvageable as rags, or just trash? “But here’s warning: if you’re found anywhere within five miles of Camp Devens — or any installation for that matter — believe me, you’ll be head and ears in trouble. Stay away from the town of Ayer. Hear?”

As if ducking a blow, Frieda nods.

“Our hope,” Mrs. Sprague continues, her tone a bit tempered, “is that you’ll volunteer for medical care — and help us all by helping your own health. It’s not too late to turn away from ruin.”

But Frieda can taste the ruin already, a spoiled-milk acridness near her tonsils. She feels sweat — or something worse? — beneath her skirts.

Mrs. Sprague finds a pad and pencil in her purse. “Do you live at home? We’d like to reach your parents.”

“They’re dead,” Frieda mutters. (Papa is; Mama might as well be.)

“You’re adrift.” The woman marks something in her book. “Then tell me where you yourself live.”

“Harrison,” comes out automatically, but she’s quick enough to falsify the number. “Seventy-two,” she says — Mama’s Chambers Street address.

“Telephone?”

Frieda shakes her head.

Mrs. Sprague makes another note and tucks her pad away, looking saddened by the thought of such privation. One after the other she lifts her gray braids, which have fallen in front of her hunched shoulders, and places them back behind her neck.

Copyright © 2007 by Michael Lowenthal. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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