But this morning, days away from thirteen, a girl of high temperament and little patience, I was burning with anticipation. I wanted to go as fast as a girl could go, a winged runner with hair on fire, hanging over the side of an open cockpit, a high wind blowing my clothes off.
I passed Miss Riley, the red-haired head nurse, her long, freckled legs stretched straight out from the chair where she was sleeping, her head thrown back against the wall, her mouth hanging open. My wheelchair was standard issue, made of wood with yellowed wicker on the seat and back, and it was squeaky so I pushed it softly by Miss Rileys office, down the corridor to the elevator, hoping not to get caught before I carried out my plan.
When the elevator doors opened onto the first floor, Dr. Iler was rushing out of the Babies Ward, and I waved, but he looked right at me without registering who I was or wondering, as he ought to have, what I was doing up and dressed at dawn. Running away? Thats what he would have thought if hed seen me through his own preoccupations. On bad days, running away was what we talked about doing, as if we had legs for running or anywhere to go, stuck in the Georgia countryside, prisoners of our own limitations.
Suzie Richards. Dr. Iler suddenly stopped and turned around, as if my presence had come to him in memory after he had seen me in person. What are you doing up at the crack of dawn?
I couldnt sleep, I said.
Well, be careful, he said, and I thought to say Of what? out here in the middle of mainly nowhere with doctors and nurses and priests and orderlies, no danger here except the invisible one of my own secret desires. But what did I know then about fear of what was inside myself?
I will be careful, I said, and he was gone.
Outside the front door, the air was New England chilly, fresh with the beginning of spring, and I wheeled my chair through the big door, down the ramp onto the sidewalk, thinking of Joey Buckleys brown eyes, deep and dark as winter ponds.
The buildings of the Warm Springs Polio Foundation had a kind of fading beauty. It had been a late-nineteenth-century spa, rebuilt, after Roosevelt purchased the old Meriwether Inn and grounds, with low white buildings in wings around a grassy courtyard with walkways, some covered like porticoes. I thought of myself as living in a hotel. I was grown-up and beautiful and walking without the aid of crutches or braces, walking in high heels, and I had come to this hotel on a holiday to find the man of my dreams.
I wheeled over to the wing where the Boys Ward was located, stopping just below it so Joey Buckley, if he happened to be looking out the window beside his bed, would see me there.
Behind me, the door to the main building opened and shut, and I kept my back to whoever was coming out, hoping to pass unobserved, but the invader of my private romance was Father James, another recipient of my unguarded affection, and he had seen me. I could feel him headed in my direction.
Mary, he said, coming up behind me, out of breath.
He called me Mary because I had told him my middle name was Mary and I was called by that name at home, although my middle name was really Lynn. But neither Susan nor Lynn seemed right for a Quaker girl converting to Catholicism, as I had been in the process of doing with Father James, wishing to fill the long empty hours with something commensurate with my desire and because I loved him and believed he would like me better with a name like Mary.
Much of my free time at Warm Springs was spent figuring out the best way to be liked by the people I wanted to like me. Not everyone. Only the ones who judged me bad for reasons I could never understand, neither the reasons nor the meaning of bad. And the ones I adored, since I was at an age and had an inclination to love without reservation.
Copyright © 2007 by Susan Richards Shreve. 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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