Outside the train station, I drew the city's breath, yeasty from the breweries and bittersweet from the chocolate factory, into my lungs and felt better already. My grip on my bag was tight. I wasn't late or excessively early. And now, for the first time in weeks, I was hungry, ravenous, in fact. I went into the station and stopped at a counter to buy myself a bag of peanuts with extra salt and a cup of coffee that didn't burn my tongue. When I'd finished the nuts, I was still hungry.
"Would you wrap half a ham salad?" I said. "No, better make it a whole. And some of that chicken. And maybe a piece of pie. The cherry, please."
Someone down the counter was drinking a chocolate milkshake that looked awfully good, and I was tempted to order one of those.
"That's what I like," the counterman said, punching numbers into the register, "a woman who can eat."
So I changed my mind about the milkshake. As I was paying my bill, they called my train.
"One way, miss? Goin' home?" the conductor asked, steadying himself with his hip along the seat in front of me.
I nearly began to explain that it wasn't right, really, to consider it home any longer, even though legally the farm was half mine. Really it belonged to my sister now, since she lived there, had a family there, and I was just going back for a restorative visit because somehow my body had taken on a life of its own. I wanted to confess that I'd been banished because I had failed as a nurse, because no one, including me, believed that I could coax soldiers back into proper shape when I was such a mess myself. But it isn't in me to say such things out loud.
"That's right," I said.
He winked. "Tickets!" he bawled and lurched away down the swaying car.Spring meant even less in the country than it did in the city that year, and by the time we pulled up to the icy little platform in Nagawaukee, the sky was heavy with unfallen snow. The wind bit at my face, so that I had to duck my head. I watched the toes of my boots as I stepped down the slick platform stairs and picked my way over the snow that drifted across the street in long pulls like taffy. My steps took me one, two, three buildings down from the platform where I stopped at the door of Heinzelman's Bait and Tackle--"A Dozen Grubs for a Penny." I went in.
The bell over the door jingled, and the coals in the corner stove gave an answering glow to the sudden draft. Then the curtains behind the counter parted, and Mary Louise Lindgren emerged from the back room. She smiled when she saw me, beamed, you could say, and wiped her hands on her apron front in that nervous way she had, as she hurried toward me.
"Mandy! What are you doing home?" She put her hands on my shoulders, pressed her cheek against mine. "Ooh, you're frozen, a block of ice!" She held her warm palms to my face for a moment and then grabbed hold of my wrist and gave it a little tug without pausing to let me answer her question. "Come over near the stove. I can't believe it, just can't believe it's you! I wondered--when I heard the bell--I wondered who would be coming in at this hour, and I thought, It's probably Harry Stoltz, but, of course, it couldn't have been, because he's over in Watertown, and then I thought . . ."
She would have gone on about what she'd supposed and what she'd thought after that and what she'd done next, but I interrupted.
"I'm taking a vacation," I said, "a rest." It was true, in a way.
"Mathilda is going to be so happy!" She frowned. "But why didn't she tell me? She was in here only two days ago."
"Mattie doesn't know."
That was all I needed to say, because she broke in immediately. "A surprise! How wonderful! And, Mandy," she leaned toward me and lowered her voice discreetly, though there was no one else in the shop to hear, "I have a surprise too." She waited until she was sure she had my full attention. "George and I may have a little one." She patted her apron front significantly.
Excerpted from Drowning Ruth by Christina Shwarz. Copyright© 2000 by Christina, Schwarz. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, 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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