July 17, 1944
In the year-and-a-half Babe Huggins has worked for Western Union, she has been late only once before. Maybe thats why in the months to come she will occasionally persuade herself that some premonition delayed her this morning. But in her more rational moments, she knows her tardiness has nothing to do with a sixth sense, only an unsteady hand when she draws the line down the back of her leg to simulate the seam in a nylon. The odd thing is that before the war made off with nylons, her seams were rarely straight, but this morning, she washes off the crooked line, starts over, and is late leaving for work.
The walk uptown from her parents house, where she moved back after Claude shipped out, takes fifteen minutes, and by the time she turns onto Broad Street, the clock on the stone façade of First Farmers Bank says eight-ten. As she hurries past the open door of Swallows Drug Store, she inhales the familiar mix of fresh coffee and frying bacon and medications. Later in the day, when she goes in to get her Coke, the store will smell of tuna fish and grilled cheese and medications.
A line of men sit at the counter, their haunches balanced precariously on the red leatherette stools, the backs of their necks strangely vulnerable as they hunch forward over their coffee. In the four booths along the wall, men lean against the wooden seatbacks, polished day after day, year after year, by the same shoulders. Swallows is not the only drug store and lunch counter in South Downs. There are three others. But Swallows is the best, or at least the most respectable. All the men there wear suit coats and ties, though this morning some of them have taken off the coats. Mr. Gooding, the president of First Farmers, who lives in a large Tudor house on the western edge of town where the wide lawns rise and dip like waves in a clement green ocean, is already fire-engine red with the heat. Only Mr. Swallow, standing behind the prescription counter in his starched white coat and fringe of white hair like the tonsures of the monks in the picture near the pew where she used to wait for confession, looks cool, or as cool as a man with two sons in the service can look.
Mr. Craighton, the undertaker, waves to her from his usual stool near the door. She waves back with one hand while she digs the key out of her handbag with the other. The key feels greasy. The mayonnaise from her egg salad sandwich has seeped through the waxed paper and brown bag.
She unlocks the door and steps into the small office. Its like walking into an oven. Without stopping to put down her bag, she crosses the room, switches on the fan, and turns it toward her desk. A heavy metal paperweight shaped like the god Mercury holds down the stack of blank telegram forms, but the breeze from the fan ruffles their edges. When she goes next door to get a Coke to go with her sandwich, she will ask one of the soda jerks to give her a bowl of ice to put in front of the fan. Mr. Swallow never minds. Sometimes he sends a bowl over without her asking.
She walks around the counter where customers write out their messages, puts her bag in the bottom drawer of the desk, and takes the cover off the teletypewriter machine. Only after she folds the cover and puts it in another drawer does she turn on the machine. It clatters to life, quick and brash and thrilling as Fred Astaire tapping his way across a movie screen. The sound always makes her stand up straighter. Shes no Ginger Rogers, but as long as she stands over that teletypewriter machine, she feels like somebody. She certainly feels more like somebody than she used to when she stood behind the ribbon counter at Diamonds department store. She never would have got the job if all the men hadnt gone off to war. Even then, her father laughed at her for applying. Who did she think she was? He said the same thing when she went to work at Diamonds rather than the five and dime. Who did she think she was? It is the refrain of her life. She has heard it from teachers, though not Miss Saunders in tenth-grade English; and nuns; and a fearful, suspicious gaggle of aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Excerpted from Next to Love by Ellen Feldman. Copyright © 2011 by Ellen Feldman. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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