Blue as Blue Can Be

(excerpt)

April 1928

Saturday

Brigid looked back over what she’d written, trying to block out the complaining of the men in the next room – every one of them had been given a bath, and for what?  Were the Yanks so sparkling clean?

  Here I am setting out from Athenry, as blue as blue can be. 

She hadn’t really meant to rhyme and now she wasn’t sure at all if it captured how she’d felt.  Had she really felt blue as the last few passengers climbed slowly aboard the train, looking back at fathers and brothers lifting wooden arms as mothers and sisters dabbed noses and eyes with yellow handkerchiefs?

Her own father and her cousin William had been in the crowd, smiling and nodding when she looked over, and otherwise talking excitedly and even laughing.  From the station they were going to the races and though they’d tried to put on somber faces for her departure, their excitement was poorly contained.  Wasn’t that horse who’d won in Belfast running today?  Sure, he was.  Good for a quid, at least.  Her father had been wearing his gray cap, pulled low.  William clutched his hat in one hand and every now and then, slapped it against his leg.  They’d already all but forgotten her and she’d felt that fading of sadness into a white emptiness, as though they had nothing to do with her, as if everything she’d ever felt for them was just a day-dream, the kind that sticks in your mind when you’re jerked back into life, muddling your focus.  Each time her father had smiled and laughed, she’d wished steam would pour from the wheels and blot out the crowd, but instead, when they did finally move off, the train had eased away slowly enough that even William remembered to wave.  She wouldn’t write about any of that.  It wouldn’t rhyme, anyway.

Along with a new yellow dress, the journal had been a gift at the farewell party: her father had handed her the package, wrapped in white paper, saying, “We thought, with how you like to write your poems, you could keep us a journal.  And send it after.”  Thanking them she’d passed it around, so each could write their names and addresses in the back. 

A blot spread evenly around the pen’s tip.  She didn’t want them to think she was unhappy, but also didn’t want them to think she was glad to be leaving Ireland.  She wrote: Went to baths where I was inspected by a lady and then passed on to the hair cleaners, seven or eight sly looking old women all combing away.

That room had stunk of turpentine and sweat.  The narrow windows were high up on the walls and the bare, hanging bulbs were dim.  As they were called from the line, passengers reclined in barber chairs with cracked leather covers and the old ladies ran metal combs over their heads.  Occasionally one of the ladies would perk up, call over a roaming doctor and if the man nodded, the lady would point to the door and shout, “For a wash.” 

When the woman ahead of her shuffled forward, Brigid fished a coin from her purse.  A chair opened up and she hurried over with the coin held before her.

“What’s this then?” the woman said, clutching the big comb with both hands, like a crucifix.  Gray tufts of hair slipped from beneath the woman’s puffy white cap, brushing her scar-rutted cheeks.

“Just a tip, then.”

“Well, that’s nice,” the woman said, slipping the coin into a pocket.  “Sit here.”

Brigid leaned her head back so she could see the brown water stains and a hanging bulb.  The woman went gently over her head with the comb.  “Nothing here. How about a little oil?”

“Sure,” Brigid said, smiling.  The woman called over the doctor who looked quickly at Brigid’s head and said she was fine.

“Just down through there, sweetheart,” the lady said, giving her shoulders a squeeze.

At the bottom of the stairs she joined twenty other women who were undressing down to their slips.  She unsnapped her skirt and rolled down her stockings, letting her hair hang over her face.  The others covered themselves as best they could, except a short, fat woman whose wide brown nipples, each sprouting a few coarse hairs, hung over the top of her skirt.  This woman folded each piece of clothing as though alone in her room with all the time in the world, until all that was left was her skirt slip and, above that, a girdle that pushed up swells of fat, like dough in a fist.

A young woman handed out gray blankets, saying, “Wrap these around yourself until the doctors are ready.”

The fat woman rapped the girdle and said, “Do I have to take this off, then?” 

“I’m afraid so,” the young woman said.

“Will you look at it then?  You’ll have to cut it off.”

“Everything but the slip’s what they told me,” the young girl said, holding out a blanket, eyes on the floor.

“We’ll let them cut it off me, then,” the fat woman said, snatching the blanket.  “See how they like that.”

When Brigid’s turn came a young doctor moved a flat wooden stick quickly and gently over her arms and neck and back so a chill of pleasure ran up through her chest and stomach. 

“Isn’t it cold in here,” she said with a waver.  The doctor was handsome, though thick glasses made his blue eyes bulge.  His short, dirty blond hair seemed to want her to run her fingers through it.  Of course she restrained herself, staring at the far, blank wall as he said, “This one’s fine,” and she was taken to a table where her bag was unpacked and her clothes that weren’t new were dipped in turpentine. 

Surely her parents would be proud that she hadn’t needed a bath or even a wash and that the new clothes hadn’t been ruined.  But how could she explain that when she’d first seen the young doctor in his white coat she’d thought: here is the man I’m meant to marry? “You’re too smart for these farm boys,” her mother had always said, but the pride had been tinged with resignation; for what else was there in Mount Bellow but farm boys?

 I met Mr. Mulasky in the hotel.  He presented me with books, oranges and sweets.  Met the lads after awhile everyone one of them swearing about the cruelty.  Then we all wrote home.  I was advised to tell you if you live to be a hundred, never to come to Queenstown.  Then we went again to office bath, got our cards, were led up a flight of steps into a doctor, he looked at our red cards, stamped a green one and kept red.  Back again at the hotel where we had our tea, then went to office to post letters and then went to the cathedral for confessions.

There was a knock at the door and Mick Raferty stuck his head in.  His dark hair was flat from the turpentine and it made his long, high forehead shine.  She remembered what her cousin had said: “It’s as though someone took a perfectly nice head and put it in a vice and gave it a couple vigorous turns.”  Brigid had laughed and ever since had felt a little bit of pity for Mick.  But somehow, now, in his dark suit, he looked like a grown man, though his jacket didn’t quite fit.  “We’re going down, for dinner,” he said, pointing at the floor.  “Will you join us?” 

“Sure, of course.”  She snapped her journal shut and straightened her skirt. As she brushed past, Mick smiled and he followed close behind.

– This story can be read in its entirety in the Summer 2009 issue of The Antioch Review

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