July 17, 1944
In the year-and-a-half Babe Huggins has worked for Western Union, she has been late only once before. Maybe that’s 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 Swallow’s 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. Swallow’s is not the only drug store and lunch counter in South Downs. There are three others. But Swallow’s 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. It’s 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. She’s 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 Diamond’s department store. She never would have got the job if all the men hadn’t 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 Diamond’s 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.
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 didn’t.
The tickertape comes inching out of the machine. She leans over it to read the check. To most people, it’s 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 it’s scalding. Grace and Millie and the other girls she went to school with say they could never do what she’s 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 recipient’s address. In the cables from the war department, that’s 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. It’s 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.
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. It’s 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. It’s 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. He’ll 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 she’s 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 Shaker’s life, until his wife dies eight years later. By three o’clock, he has delivered ten of the sixteen that came that morning and the three more that arrived later. By then, everyone knows what he’s 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. She’s 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 water’s 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-law’s arms. The scene is as peaceful and perfect as a Saturday Evening Post cover. What We’re Fighting For.
He takes the telegrams from the glove compartment and rifles through them until he finds the ones he’s looking for. A sudden wave of nausea makes him lean back in the driver’s seat and close his eyes. Which hearts break harder, wives or mothers? The question has no answer. Misery cannot be weighed on a scale. He slips the envelopes into his pocket, gets out of the truck, and starts toward the pond.
Awful as the day is, Sam Shaker never regrets volunteering for the job, though it costs him business, not just during the hours the store is closed that afternoon, but for years to come. People still like him. They admit he carries a good line of products. But certain men and women in town cannot walk into the store and see him behind the counter without remembering the day the bell rang, and they went to the door and opened it to find him standing there with a telegram in his hand. For a while they feel guilty going to A & A Hardware two blocks away. Eventually they get used to it.