The fist in her chest clenches.
The fist opens. Mrs. Wohl is the widowed mother of a large clan that live north of town. If you take the main road east toward Boston, then turn off onto School Road and keep going past the pond where the town swims in summer and skates in winter, you reach the Wohl farm, though almost no one does. The Wohls keep pretty much to themselves.
She goes on reading.
THE SECRETARY OF WAR DESIRES ME TO EXPRESS HIS DEEPEST REGRETS THAT YOUR SON PRIVATE EARL WOHL
She cannot remember which one Earl is. Was.
The tickertape comes to the end of the message. She picks up the scissors, ready to go to work, but the machine keeps clattering and spewing out tape.
She glances at the new check. Its from the War Department again. This one reads MR AND MRS. She forces herself to look away and begins cutting the words of the first cable. DEEP REGRET STOP SERVICE OF HIS COUNTRY STOP. She does not want to fall behind. Its bad enough she came in late.
She is still pasting the strips of tickertape from the first wire onto the Western Union form when the machine begins spewing out a third message. By noon she has cut and pasted sixteen messages from the war department, enough to break the hearts of the entire town, more than B.J. will be able to deliver on his bicycle in one afternoon. This is nothing like the fantasies of hiding or holding up telegrams. This is real. All over town, people are waiting for bad news, only they have no inkling. She knows the worst, but she cannot stop to take it in. She has to get the telegrams out.
She thinks of going next door and asking Mr. Swallow if she can borrow his delivery boy. Then she realizes. She cannot ask Mr. Swallow.
Through the plate glass window, she sees Mr. Creighton pulling up to the curb. Hell be going into the drug store for his usual ham and cheese sandwich. He would be happy, well not happy, though who knows what an undertaker thinks about death, but willing to deliver the telegrams. And with his car, he can do it much faster than B.J. She pictures him driving up to a house in his big black Cadillac. She imagines him walking up the path with the pale yellow envelope in his hand. This is not news an undertaker should deliver.
She tells B.J. to watch the office for a minute and walks quickly down the street to the hardware store. She is careful not to run. She does not want to alarm people. She keeps her head down so no one can see shes crying.
Mr. Shaker is sitting on a high stool behind the counter, leafing through a catalogue. There are no customers in the aisles. She starts to explain that she has sixteen telegrams from the war department and wants him to deliver some of them, but before she can finish, he is coming out from behind the counter. He says he will close the store and deliver all of them.
It is the worst day of Sam Shakers life, until his wife dies eight years later. By three oclock, he has delivered ten of the sixteen that came that morning and the three more that arrived later. By then, everyone knows what hes up to. He can feel eyes watching him from behind half drawn blinds, tracking the progress of his truck driving slowly up one street and down another, praying he will keep going.
One of the telegrams takes him to the Wohl farm outside of town. On his way back, he passes the pond that serves as a swimming hole. The heat has brought out half the women and children in town.
He pulls off the road and sits watching them for a moment. Millie Swallow is sitting on a blanket with her little boy held in the embrace of her crossed legs. Shes wearing a straw hat with a wide brim, but even at this distance he can see her shoulders are pink and freckled. Grace Gooding is standing waist deep in the pond, her hands supporting her little girl beneath her stomach, while the child churns her arms and kicks her legs and sends up a spray that splinters in the sun like diamonds. At the waters edge, a group of matrons sit in low canvas chairs. Mrs. Huggins is knitting, probably another sweater for Claude. Mrs. Swallow is pouring lemonade from a thermos. Mrs. Gooding is watching her granddaughter splashing in her daughter-in-laws arms. The scene is as peaceful and perfect as a Saturday Evening Post cover. What Were Fighting For.
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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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