"Have you ever made sauerkraut, or do you always purchase it?" Mrs. Kirkenbauer had asked during their first meeting, and Mary admitted that she'd never done either, without adding that no employer she'd ever worked for had wanted sour cabbage and its sharp aroma anywhere near the floral patterns of their halls, the intricate moldings of their ceilings. If Alfred had an evening yearning for it he went out to the streets in search of the roaming sauerkraut man and the steel drum he wore around the city.
"Would you be willing to learn if I showed you once? Are you a quick learner?" How far removed is this woman from her native Philadelphia's version of the Lower East Side, Mary wondered, but simply answered "Yes."
Was that all it took to get Mary to agree to leave the city that summer? Had the wages been better than she remembered? No. Years later, when she had all the time in the world to think about it, every hour of the day if she chose, every single minute, nothing seemed to add up, least of all seeing a younger version of herself step off a train to await pickup by Mr. Kirkenbauer himself because they had no full-time chauffeur. Alfred had begged her to decline the job. He'd wanted her to find something closer to home, promising a Fourth of July fireworks show she'd never forget. He'd already begun stockpiling the rockets and sparklers, and planned to invite everyone in their building to watch. But the Fourth of July fell on a Tuesday that year, and Mary didn't want to organize her summer around one single day, so she left Alfred alone on Thirty-Third Street to fend for himself. Maybe that was the spring when he told her once and for all that he'd never marry her. Not because he didn't love her, but because he didn't believe in it. In the old country, fine, some customs could not be shaken, but what was the point of America if two people couldn't do as they pleased?
Funny how she grew so used to Alfred and the way they were that it was hard to believe there was ever a time when she wanted him to marry her, a time when she thought that he would, eventually, when his mind came around to it, when he admitted to himself and to her it was only the right thing to do. It was even harder to believe that she'd ever considered their not being married their biggest problem. Maybe the summer of 1899 was when she finally admitted the possibility that the things he said were really the things he believed. There was no secret code to crack, no door she could knock upon to make him come around. She was not a woman who should have to convince a man to marry her. There were plenty who would trip over themselves for the chance. That was it, she remembered, a lifetime later, when she went over the details of that summer once again. That must have been it. Her pride was injured. She wanted to teach him a lesson. She wanted space from him to think, maybe to work up the courage to leave him, to try for a different kind of life. So she went away that summer, and wished him the best for his fireworks show, and told him she'd be home on Sundays or she wouldn't, depending on her mood.
"And there's a child, isn't there?" the woman at the office had said during that first meeting, glancing at her notes. Mary noticed that Mrs. Kirkenbauer's clothes were exquisite, every stitch in its place, the fabric somehow skimming her slim figure and hiding it at the same time. She was younger than Mary, with a beautiful German face.
"Yes, one, a boy. Is that a problem?"
"Of course not," the agent had said. "Mary loves children. Don't you, Mary?"
"I do," Mary said in a flat voice.
Mary did not love all children, but she did love that boy. Within forty-eight hours of her arrival in Dobbs Ferry she saw that there would be no way to keep baby Tobias out of her kitchen, so she told his nanny to leave him, set him up on the floor with a toy and let him watch. The clever boy played happily until his nanny was out of sight, and then he reached his hands up to Mary to be lifted so he could see for himself what she had on the stove. "Spoon," he said, when he wanted a taste. "Hot!" he warned when he saw steam coming up from a pot. She gave him a new word every day and he stored it, trotting it out a few days later like he was born knowing it. It got so it was lonely in the kitchen without him. When he was there with her she talked to him all afternoon. "You are a good boy," Mary would say, and he'd beat his chest and say "good boy." When she dressed in the mornings, long before anyone else in the house was up, she looked forward to the tug of his chubby hand on her skirt, his fat little legs sticking out beneath his short pants. She listened for him coming down the hall before breakfast, running as fast as he could manage toward her kitchen, to see her, to press his soft cheek against hers and say her name.
Excerpted from Fever by Mary Beth Keane. Copyright © 2013 by Mary Beth Keane. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. 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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