Rumor has it that after the war Western Union is going to install one of those new machines that automatically type the message directly onto the blank form. They already have them in Boston, but Boston is the big city, ninety-one miles east and light years away. She is not looking forward to the new machines. She likes cutting the tickertape and pasting it on the telegram forms. She takes pride in never snipping off a letter and getting the strips in straight lines. Not that it will matter to her what kind of machine Western Union installs after the war. She had to promise, as a condition of being hired, that once the men start coming home, she will give up the job to a returning veteran and go back where she belongs. She wanted to ask the man who interviewed her exactly where that was, but didnt.
The tickertape comes inching out of the machine. She leans over it to read the check. To most people, its the first line, but since she started working in the telegraph office, she has picked up the lingo. The check tells where the telegram comes from. She lifts the tape between her thumb and forefinger.
WMUC200 44 GOVT=WUX WASHINGTON DC
She drops the tape as if its scalding. Grace and Millie and the other girls she went to school with say they could never do what shes doing. They try to make it sound like a compliment, but what they really mean is their hearts are too soft, their skin too thin, their constitutions too delicate to serve as a messenger of the angel of death. She does not argue with them. She stopped arguing with them, except in her head, in third grade.
She picks up the tickertape again to read the second line, the one with the recipients address. In the cables from the war department, thats the killer line. Fear, hard and tight as a clenched fist, grips her chest as the letters inch out. If the first few spell MR AND MRS, she is safe. The dead boy has no wife, only parents. If they form MRS, the fist in her chest clenches so tight she cannot breath. Only when she has enough letters to read the name and see it is not hers can she suck in air again.
She has never told anyone about the giddy relief she feels then. Its too callous. She has never told anyone about the sense of power either. As she watches the words inching out of the teletypewriter, she is the first one in town, the only one until she cuts and pastes the words, puts the telegram in an envelope, and gives it to B.J. to deliver on his bicycle, who knows something that will knock whole families worlds off their axes. Sometimes she wonders what would happen if she did not deliver the telegram. Could people be happy living on ignorance and illusion? What if she delayed handing the telegram to B.J.? Is it a crime or a kindness to give some girl another day of being married, some mother and father an extra few hours of worrying about their son? Would she buy that extra day or hour if she could?
She has another secret about those telegrams from the war department, one she will never tell anyone, not Millie, certainly not Grace. Even if she still went to confession, she would not own up to it. Once, in the past year-and-a-half, she read the name in the second line and felt a flash of relief, not that the boy was dead, never that, but that what he knew about her had died with him. She knows the penance for most sins. So many Hail Marys for lying or missing confession or sins of the flesh, which always sounds better to her than he-did-this-and-I-did-that, father. But what is the penance for a black heart?
She looks down at the tickertape again.
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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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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