Frieda glimpses Mr. Crowley standing ten yards off, with the floorwalker from the Notions department. Can he hear? Does he see that shes not wrapping? Twice last week he scolded her for minuscule infractions (sitting before her break, excessive laughter). What would he inflict for this transgression? Youre 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 cant. 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.
Mrs. Sprague colors and looks down, away from Frieda.
She plucks a mote of cotton from her sleeve. You might have heard the laymans 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 hasnt, not with anyone but Felix. (Well, and Jack Galassi, but that was long ago.) Felix? she says. I dont . . . I cant believe it.
Im not at liberty to disclose the soldiers name.
Lou arrives with two piqué petticoats to be wrapped, and piles them onto Friedas growing backlog. She taps Friedas right shoulder: You all right?
Frieda nods, but the movement nauseates her. In the teeter of her panic she tries to summon Felixs 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.
Youre lucky, explains Mrs. Sprague. Because you met this soldier outside of the moral zone, we dont have authority to arrest you. And we cant 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 heres warning: if youre found anywhere within five miles of Camp Devens or any installation for that matter believe me, youll 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 youll volunteer for medical care and help us all by helping your own health. Its 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? Wed like to reach your parents.
Theyre dead, Frieda mutters. (Papa is; Mama might as well be.)
Youre adrift. The woman marks something in her book. Then tell me where you yourself live.
Harrison, comes out automatically, but shes quick enough to falsify the number. Seventy-two, she says Mamas Chambers Street address.
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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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