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With Every Breath
By Elizabeth Camden
Bethany House PublishersCopyright © 2014 Dorothy Mays
All rights reserved.
TWELVE YEARS LATER
Kate held the letter in her hands. She'd read it so many times over the past week, the words were engraved in her mind, yet she still couldn't understand why a world-renowned doctor would have singled her out to apply for a prestigious position at Washington Memorial Hospital.
Around her, rows of women filled the cavernous room, all of them sitting before tabulating machines. The women busily fed punch cards into the machines, filling the air with the sounds of clicking, humming, and rattling. Kate used to adore her work here at the census bureau. Analyzing data to better understand the world around her had been a joy, the perfect job, and one that drew on her statistical abilities. But that was last year, before the machines invaded the bureau's office.
The machines had put statisticians out of work everywhere. It seemed there was no longer an office in the entire city that didn't have an adding machine or a tabulating mechanism. There was still plenty of statistical forecasting work that needed to be done by people with a good head for numbers, but those jobs went to men.
Men with college degrees.
She pushed the thought away. Tomorrow morning she was going to interview at Washington Memorial Hospital for a position to analyze data and predict trends in health and disease. Never had she wanted a job so badly. It would free her from this beehive and give her the chance to do something meaningful with her brain.
"Are you really going to go through with it?" Betsy Waters asked, leaning over from her tabulating station.
Kate startled and quickly slipped the letter beneath a stack of files. "I've got to," she said in a low voice. "I'll wonder for the rest of my life if I don't."
She still wondered how Dr. T. M. Kendall had learned of her existence. After all, there were dozens of statisticians who had been put out of work when the census became automated, so why did he single her out for an interview?
"I hope Mr. Gertsmann doesn't fire you on the spot," Betsy said. "Last year he fired Letty Smitson just for reading the advertisements for open positions in the Treasury Department."
Kate was well aware of her supervisor's hostility toward any employee who dared to lift her head up and aspire to something outside the beehive. Washington had always been a little unusual in the number of women who were able to find office jobs. Government agencies required an awesome number of clerical workers, and in a small city like Washington, that opened doors for women. Almost a third of the people working in government offices were women, but most were under the thumb of men like Mr. Gertsmann, who greeted Kate's request for three hours of leave with a long, hostile stare.
"I insist on knowing the reason you will miss work in the middle of the week," Mr. Gertsmann said. "Such lack of discipline is not something I will condone without a good explanation."
"Sir, I'm only asking for three hours tomorrow morning. I will be in the office by eleven o'clock." At all costs, she must not let him know she was interviewing for another position or he might fire her then and there.
"I will not allow you to gallivant around this city without knowing your reason for missing work."
"I've worked here for twelve years," Kate said. "In all that time I've only been absent from work once."
"Yes, but that involved an entire week, and you did so without advance warning."
She sucked in a sharp breath. "That was when my husband died! And I didn't receive advance warning the scaffolding he was standing on was going to collapse."
She blinked rapidly. The accident had been four years ago, and Kate hardly ever cried over it anymore, but to have Nathan's death flung at her made her want to break something.
Other women in the office sent her sympathetic glances. Mr. Gertsmann was condescending to all the women in the office, but he always singled her out for the worst of his ire.
"You have no bereavement now, so again I insist on knowing why you plan on missing work."
The clattering of the machines tapered off a little as some in the office started listening in. Given the way the other women in the room glared at him, it was almost surprising that Mr. Gertsmann didn't burst into flame.
"It's a personal matter," she finally answered.
"And is this 'personal matter' in relation to employment at the Washington Memorial Hospital?"
She winced. "How did you know that?"
He yanked a small envelope from his pocket. "Because I've had a request for your references. The newly appointed Dr. T. M. Kendall wishes to know about your vaunted skills as a statistician."
The way he said statistician made it sound like a puny and pathetic word. After all, with machines taking over so much of the tabulating work, Mr. Gertsmann thought statisticians ought to be put on the shelf alongside the bow and arrow and everything else that had been rendered useless by modern technology.
"I certainly hope you will find working at the hospital a fulfilling outlet for your ambitions, because I can't imagine employing a woman of questionable loyalty here at the census bureau."
"Are you firing me?" It would be a disaster if she lost this job before securing another. With all the pricey improvements her parents made to the boardinghouse, Kate's income was needed to pay the bank note each month.
Mr. Gertsmann assumed an artificially pleasant tone as he smirked at her. "And if I decide to terminate your employment if you miss work tomorrow morning?"
She had to be smart about this. Mr. Gertsmann was a small man whose ego needed regular tending, and she braced herself to do just that.
"Then naturally I will be here on time," she said calmly. If she had to miss the interview, she would find another way to make contact with Dr. Kendall.
Her conciliatory words had the desired effect. Mr. Gertsmann preened, puffing his chest out and fiddling with the buttons on his vest.
"Excellent," he said. "I am a generous man and will permit you three hours' leave, but I trust this will be the end of your foolish ambitions. Women are ideally suited to the monotony of census work, but if you wish to toy with the fantasy of pursuing a rigorous intellectual position, it will be amusing to watch."
He patted her on the shoulder, and she tried not to cringe. "I hope the disappointment is not too great," he added before leaving the room.
"That man makes me long for a bucket of tar and a sack of feathers," Kate muttered as she returned to her station. She was twenty-nine years old and was dying on the vine at the census bureau. The position at the hospital was a long shot, but she intended to fight hard for it.
* * *
"Why does he hate you so much?" Charlie Davis asked as he lounged in the windowsill of the boardinghouse's dining room, his thin frame looking as delicate as a reed. For such a skinny man, he was always voraciously hungry and appeared the moment the scent from her mother's kitchen began percolating through the boardinghouse. With his gray hair immaculately groomed and his neatly clipped mustache, Charlie was like the grandfather she never had, and their daily chat while she set the dinner table had been a ritual since the time Kate was a child.
His question made Kate pause as she retrieved the heavy pewter flatware from the sideboard. "Mr. Gertsmann doesn't like anybody, but one time I stopped a report from going out that had a string of errors in it. A batch of punch cards had been fed into the machine backwards, skewing the data. He ought to have noticed the numbers looked off-kilter, but it slipped past him. I think he was embarrassed I caught it."
"You might have saved his job," Charlie said.
"Maybe." She began laying the plates next. They were large plates, as her mother delivered heaping portions of the best food on the Eastern Seaboard, making their boardinghouse famous among the elected officials in Washington. Most government jobs didn't pay much, and unless the elected officials were independently wealthy, they usually stayed in boardinghouses or hotels whenever Congress was in session.
The dining room was large, with three windows facing H Street and providing a view of the US Capitol building only a few blocks away. The dining room's creamy yellow walls and crown molding was typical of the Federal style that dominated the city. A long table stretched down the center of the room, and Kate had been setting this table each evening from the time she was old enough to be trusted with the crockery.
From behind the swinging door to the kitchen, pots clattered and a kettle whistled. Dinner was at least twenty minutes away, yet the scents of fresh bread and simmering beef were probably tormenting Charlie as badly as a hound tethered just out of reach from a juicy steak. "How about I sneak in the kitchen and see if I can steal a blueberry muffin for you? Mother made them this afternoon."
Charlie's eyes sparkled. "You are an angel of goodness and mercy."
Charlie had lived at their boardinghouse ever since he was elected to Congress thirty-two years ago. He witnessed all her childhood triumphs and tragedies. He taught her to tie her shoelaces and looked the other way when she slid down the polished oak banisters. He listened to her wax ecstatic over her adolescent crush on Nathan Livingston, the funniest boy in school, who could balance a fiddle on the tip of his nose and still look devilishly handsome while he did it. Charlie cheered her on at horseshoe matches and commiserated when she lost the college scholarship to Trevor McDonough. Charlie came to her wedding, and he was a pallbearer at Nathan's funeral only two years later. She would be forever grateful for that. Nathan had always been a little in awe of Charlie Davis and would have been flattered that Pennsylvania's longest-serving congressman did him that final honor.
The aroma of roast beef and simmering onions surrounded Kate as she pushed into the warm kitchen. Steam rose from kettles on the massive cast-iron stove. Kate used a pair of tongs to open the door of the warming compartment. "Please look the other way while I steal a muffin for Charlie."
Her mother didn't turn around from slicing onions into a pan of sizzling butter. "Just one," she cautioned. "That Bauman girl is bringing three guests to dinner and gave me only an hour's notice. I ought to start charging Justice Bauman extra for all the mouths they drag in here."
Irene Bauman and her father had been living here the past eight years whenever the Supreme Court was in session. Justice Bauman was a decent man, but his daughter? Kate snatched a muffin and thought about skipping dinner if Irene was going to be there.
No such luck. When Kate returned to the dining room, Irene had plopped down in a chair opposite Charlie, playfully twirling a lock of her honey-blond hair. It was bad enough to watch an eighteen-year-old girl flirt with a man in his sixties, but did she really need to twirl her hair?
"Alms for the hungry," she said, dropping the muffin in Charlie's palm. "If you'll excuse me, I need to starch my dress shirt for tomorrow."
Charlie knew about the interview, of course. It would not surprise her if he'd already put in a good word for her at the hospital, although he denied it. "I've never met this Dr. Kendall fellow," he said. "But if he is half as smart as people say, he'll snap you up immediately."
"I hope you aren't going to wear that boring pinstripe shirt," Irene said. "I'll loan you one of my mutton sleeve blouses, if you like. You would look so much smarter."
Here we go. Why couldn't she and Irene be in the same room for two minutes without the competition beginning? Irene always compared their clothing, their hairstyles, their jewelry. There was nothing Kate loved more than matching wits or skill in a healthy competition, but over fashion? And yet the moment Irene moved into the boardinghouse, the natural rivalry seemed to take root and spring up at the worst times. It reminded Kate of school, when she spent years matching wits against Trevor McDonough. At least Trevor was smart; Irene was a nitwit.
Although she had to admit, Irene's mutton sleeve blouses were spectacular. Would it be so wrong to borrow one? Temptation clawed at her. Just once it would be nice to be as stylishly turned-out as Irene, but Kate couldn't take the bait. If she got this job, Irene would lord it over her for ages, insisting it was her blouse that won Kate the job.
"My pinstripe blouse will be fine." It had gently gathered sleeves and fabulous cuffs that buttoned tightly all the way to her elbows. She loved the dashing feminine appearance the blouse gave her. It was nothing compared to a real mutton sleeve blouse, but it still looked smart.
"Suit yourself," Irene said. "It's such a shame you're interviewing for another job involving math. It must be awful squinting at numbers all day. It will put lines on your face for good."
Charlie winced at the insult, but Kate took it in stride. "Oh, Irene, my face is the place nasty worry lines come to roost for fun."
Kate never worried too much about her appearance. She had a trim, athletic figure from running up and down four flights of stairs to keep the boardinghouse operating, and she never bothered with jewelry or ornamentation. With a wealth of smooth red hair, she simply mounded it atop her head in the Gibson girl style that was becoming so popular.
Kate grabbed a handful of pewter spoons and began laying them alongside the plates. "Who are your guests for dinner this evening? Mother is scrambling to stretch the meal."
"Jenny Fayette and her parents," Irene said while she kept twirling her hair. "I met them at the Smithsonian this morning. Her father is in the navy and his uniform is so dashing. I think he is a captain."
Kate almost dropped the spoons. "Captain Fayette?" she gasped. "Captain Alfred Fayette of the Naval Academy?"
"Do you already know him?" Irene looked mildly disappointed. "I was hoping to surprise everyone with my fancy guests."
Kate didn't have time for explanations; she merely shoved the spoons in Irene's hands. "Here, you finish setting the table. I've got to run."
* * *
Kate was breathless by the time she ran to the Marine Barracks on Eighth Street. It was a hot June day, and a stitch clawed at her side while a blister screamed on the back of her heel, but none of that mattered.
Her little brother was going to get into the Naval Academy if she had to pull every string in the city. Tick had dreamed of it ever since he was a child, and last year's rejection was a blow none of them anticipated. No one in her family had gone to college, so how was she to know the application process began so early? Or that they needed letters of support from officers and elected officials?
Tick ended up joining the Marine Corps after finishing school, but Kate wasn't going to let it end there. His letter of rejection encouraged him to apply again, and this time Kate would make sure his application sailed through with a chorus of angels singing his praises. Timothy "Tick" Norton was going to be the first member of their family to graduate from college if it killed her.
The blister got worse as she turned down Eighth Street. It was an older part of the city that hadn't yet been renovated. Washington used to be a small, muddy town, but after the Civil War, money flowed into the city to widen the boulevards, line the streets with trees, and erect elegantly wrought lampposts to illuminate the city. Government buildings were torn down and replaced with palaces of white granite and imposing columns that glittered in the sunlight.
In the southern part of town, the stately government buildings gave way to oak-shaded streets and redbrick walls. Only two blocks north of the US Navy Yard, the Marine Barracks consisted of a long row of buildings with an armory and living quarters. It was impossible to get through the gate this late in the afternoon, but the brick wall was only five feet tall, and with a jump she was able to hoist herself up to brace her elbows on the ledge. Tick was playing a game of dice on a table beneath the thick branches of an oak tree.
"Hey, Tick!" she called. "Get over here!"
Tick whirled around, a grin spreading over his face. With blond hair and sky-blue eyes, Tick had grown into a handsome young man. He was eighteen and already six feet tall, and he wasn't finished growing. Dressed in a plain shirt and brown pants, Tick had changed out of the field uniform he wore during the first part of the day when he served as guard to the surgeon general. His long, loping strides devoured the ground.
"Quit calling me Tick in front of other people," he said as soon as he was opposite her.
"Sorry," she said with a wince. She had been trying to quit, but he'd been Tick since she'd changed his diapers and taught him how to walk. With her mother cooking and cleaning for thirty boarders, Kate practically raised Tick, and she'd loved every minute of it. She was eleven when he was born, and he was the best gift any girl ever had. She loved his soft baby smell and the drooly smile he gave her every morning when she lifted him from the cradle. Later, he clung to her like a tick she could never shake, hanging on to her leg as she walked around the house. Whenever she came into his line of sight, he would launch himself across the room and straight into her arms.
"Listen," she whispered. "Captain Fayette from the Naval Academy is coming to dinner tonight. Change into your dress uniform and get back to the house. This is too good an opportunity to miss."
"Tonight? I can't leave without permission. There are rules about things like that."
Excerpted from With Every Breath by Elizabeth Camden. Copyright © 2014 Dorothy Mays. Excerpted by permission of Bethany House Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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