Thursday, August 26, 2010


“Refining Fire”

June, 1957
WANTED: Live-in nurse to care for disabled vet. Good wages, benefits. Own room in large house. Lite housekeeping, cooking.

* * *

The writer of the ad hadn’t asked for references, and the applicant prayed to God he wouldn’t. She prayed he wouldn’t require her current address. Wouldn’t ask to sample her cooking. For the entire hour-long bus ride from the center of the city, she prayed.

Looking out the open window of the mud-spattered bus, she watched the neighborhoods evolve from clapboard cracker boxes with tricycle- and newspaper-dotted front yards, to modest homes with the latest model Packards parked in their driveways, to grand manors with landscaping right out of Better Homes and Gardens. Two transfers it had taken to transport her to this district. Good thing transfers were no extra charge.

The bus slowed; the driver glanced in his mirror and called over his shoulder, “This is your stop, miss.”

Gathering her pocketbook and the sizeable tote bag that held all she now owned, she rose and stepped next to him. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate your assistance.” As the lumbering bus came to a halt, she grabbed the bar above the front seat. The doors opened. For an instant she only looked out. She tried wetting her lips—a vain attempt with a parched tongue. Finally descending the steps, she leapt from the last high step onto the sidewalk. The heat emanating from the concrete hit like a blast furnace. The air was stagnant. The mid-Atlantic region’s oppressive combination of heat and humidity bore an effect she believed she’d never grow accustomed to.

She walked two blocks before halting in front of the “large house,” and some of her guilt was assuaged. She hadn’t lied to the elderly gentleman she spoke to when calling about the ad, but she hadn’t been entirely forthcoming. But neither had he. If this is what he called a large house, how would he define mansion?

A wide, wrought iron gate blocked her entry. When he told her she would have to press a red button on a black box, she thought he meant the doorbell. But she was a good fifty yards from the front door.

A voice came from the box. “May I help you?” Though a bit scratchy, it sounded like the same voice as the man on the phone. Hopefully, the voice of her new employer.

“Hello? Um, my name is Clare Canterbury, and I…uh…I’m here to interview for the home nurse position,” she said into the holes of the box, thinking it an impersonal way to communicate. After several seconds of silence, the gate opened before her on its own accord.

The “large house” was of red brick construction, and Clare counted fifteen second-story windows and three third-story gabled dormers as she trekked past the precisely manicured lawn and impeccably tended garden.

A gray-haired man dressed in a dark suit greeted her at the front door. His smile warmed her. “I’m so very glad you could come, Miss Canterbury.” He stepped aside and extended his arm, inviting her to enter. Immediately the coolness surrounded her. Air conditioning. It felt heavenly.

The kindly gentleman led her through a massive, two-storied entrance hall with a marble-tiled floor, oil paintings on the walls and sculptures on white-pillared stands. They passed a mahogany table bearing an oriental vase bursting with a magnificent flower arrangement. The only flowers she could name were roses and tulips, and these weren’t either, but the beauty of the colorful spray, along with their permeating scent, was not lost on her.

A pucker-faced, middle-aged woman in a maid uniform appeared.

“Midge, please get our guest something cold to drink.”

Without a word or a smile, the woman turned and retreated down a hallway.

Stopping at the door of a room to the left of the entry, the man turned and again extended his arm into what appeared to be a spacious study. His movements were a bit labored, his fingers gnarled with arthritis, but he trekked around well enough. She wondered what unseen disabilities necessitated his need of a live-in nurse.

He showed her to a chair facing a large cherry wood desk, then took a seat across from her. Opening a folder, he perched a pair of reading spectacles on his nose and scanned some papers. The moment had arrived. She had to impress this man. She had to land this job. No hospital would hire her now.

The maid arrived with a glass of sweetened lemonade. Clare guzzled half the drink before remembering her every action would be evaluated. She must show more class. She was, after all, trying to obtain a position in this rich man’s household.

“So, let’s begin with your qualifications. You mentioned you had three years of military nursing experience. Could you expound on this?”

She could. That wasn’t the problem. She’d spent the last six months of the war at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu caring for war wounded, then two years at Fitzsimons Army Hospital near Denver. Her duties there included caring for President Eisenhower after his heart attack. She served her final six months at Walter Reed.

As for her post-military nursing experiences…she touched on her work at the VA but successfully skirted the unpleasant incident there, stating only that she had left to seek non-government work. It wasn’t exactly an untruth. He didn’t question it.

He smiled a lot, that warm smile. She hoped it meant something.

“Well, Miss Canterbury, everything seems to be in order.”

No references. Thank You, Lord. Maybe namedropping Ike had something to do with it.
He scooted his chair back and stood. “If you will wait here, I will return shortly. I believe I can give you a decision today.”

“Thank you so much, sir.” She let out a breath as he exited the room.

A quarter of an hour passed. The hope she had dared to entertain was waning. No longer able to sit, she rose and stretched. Lifting the glass of depleted lemonade, she gobbled a dwindling ice cube into her mouth. She wandered slowly about the room. A man’s room for sure: heavy, dark furniture; volumes of reference books and business journals on built-in bookshelves; a fireplace enhanced by an exquisitely carved mantel, its sole occupant a Seth Thomas clock. Noticeably lacking there—and in the entire room—were pictures. Photographs of crowed-over children and grandchildren seemed more in keeping with the sweet old gentleman.

Two stuffed chairs angled slightly toward each other and separated by a coffee table loaded with business magazines faced the fireplace. One of the chairs was well worn and obviously favored by its owner. She coasted past a rocking chair next to the fireplace and rocked it gently. Moving to the mantel, she ran her hand along the decorative wood. The wall above it, barren of pictures or ornamentation, revealed a subtle change in the hue of the paint where a large rectangular painting, portrait, or mirror had once made its home. How cozy must this room be in the winter, she thought, the fire casting a yellow-orange glow on the masculine furnishings.

She turned from the fireplace, sucked in a breath and screamed at the face before her.
Jumping to the side, she nearly fell over the rocker. The man who had materialized as if by sorcery made no attempt to help her as she righted herself. She stared into his face, the left half of which had massive scarring. His blue eyes impaled her where she stood.

“Get out of my house!”

Her breath came in spasms. “Wh…what?”

“You heard me.”

“I… you…”

“This interview is over. Now get out!” The rasp in his voice intensified with its volume.

“But I…I don’t understand. I spoke with—”

“You spoke with Leopold. He has lousy discernment when it comes to hiring employees. He actually thought you might work out. But look at you. Some nurse you are. Now for the last time, get out!”

She was unable to move. The shock of the moment and the desperateness of her situation held her in place.

“You startled me, sir. It’s not your appearance but your sudden presence that—”


The older man, whom she had thought to be her prospective employer-patient but was apparently the butler-lackey, reentered the study looking ill at ease. “Yes, Mr. Cochran,” he said soberly.

His eyes still infiltrating hers, the disfigured man before her said, “Show her the way out at once.”

“Please,” she pled. “I apologize for my outburst. I swear to you, even if Gregory Peck himself appeared the way you did I would’ve had the same reaction. You frightened me out of my skin!”
He turned and limped across the room relying heavily on a cane, his left leg and arm near-lifeless. Departing the study, he dispatched a stormy glance to his manservant that she was sure would unequivocally remind him of his duty.

The gentleman who had been so kind to her, who she wished was the employer here and not a hireling, trudged to the desk and picked up her tote and pocketbook. Holding them out to her he said, “I am truly sorry, miss.”

She went to him and received her bags. “Why did he do that to me?”

“He sometimes tests potential employees by having them remain here in the study alone. Then,” he said as he pointed to a door situated in a back corner of the room, “he watches them in secret to see if they handle his possessions, pick books off the shelf, or maybe look at papers left on the desk.”

“He was spying on me?”

“He is a man who trusts no one. And there have been instances of employee theft. He attempts to sort out those who appear suspicious from the start. I have never known him to act as he did today, though. And I am genuinely sorry, but I am forbidden to warn of his disfigurement and other conditions and may only mention ‘disabled’ in the advertisement and the interview.”

“His face, and his voice…from a fire?”

He nodded. “Peter went to Korea vibrant, rugged, handsome…and arrogant. He came home from the war as you see him now.”

“Did you really think he’d hire me?”

“I held out hope, miss.” He led her across the study.

“How long has he been without a nurse?”

“With the comfortable situation here and generous pay, I have no problem getting nurses—or maids or cooks or gardeners or any servant—to respond to the ads. But no one stays. No nurse has stayed longer than two weeks.”

“Two weeks! But he needs—”

“He suffers from the neglect, and he knows it. But he is an angry man and cannot get along with anyone, except for those he deals with in his business. For them he puts on an amiable face—so to speak—for as long as it takes to accomplish what needs to be done.”

“I get the feeling you’ve worked for him a mite longer than two weeks.”

“I have been employed by the Cochran family for thirty-five years. Peter was just an infant when I first came to work in this household…” He sighed. “I’m afraid I’ve gone on more than I should have. As much as it pains me, I must see to your leaving now.”

The knot in her stomach tightened. Her last hope was slipping away.

As they walked across the foyer, he said, “I believe you would have been the exact caregiver Mr. Cochran needs, although I’m equally certain he would have made you quite miserable. The turn this has taken is really to your benefit.”

When they reached the front door, he paused. “Again, I apologize for bringing you all the way out here for nothing. I wish you the very best in your search for employment elsewhere.”

He opened the door. Eyes lowered, she couldn’t, just couldn’t go out that door.

“I can’t find employment elsewhere,” she choked, and swallowed hard. “There was…an incident at the VA hospital. Drugs went missing on my shift. I didn’t take them, but some evidence pointed to me. There were no charges because they admitted it wouldn’t hold up in court, but they fired me nonetheless. I applied at other hospitals, but my record of ‘suspicious activity’ follows me. Same with nursing homes, visiting nurse agencies, doctor’s offices. I’m out of money. I lost my apartment. I’ve sold off all I own.”

“Don’t you have family to help you?” He closed the door.

She shook her head. “No one.”


“I thought I had friends. But after the drug accusation they began disappearing one by one.”

“If you went to another city…”

“I’ve contacted hospitals in other states. But they all ask for references, and…”

His sympathetic eyes would have brought comfort were she not at the end of her hope.

“I’m the one who needs to apologize now,” she told him. “Now it’s me who has gone on more than I should have.”

“Where are you staying now?”

“Last night was my first night with no place to stay. I slept on a bench, but a cop kicked me out of the park early this morning. That’s why I needed this job so badly.”

“I wish I could say that relating your story to Mr. Cochran would change his mind.” He shook his head. “I honestly don’t believe it would.”

“He’s that immune to others’ pain?”

“I’m afraid he’s too consumed with his own. Physical and otherwise.”

Her eyes lowered. “I’ve cared for many soldiers and veterans with devastating war injuries, but going through that nightmare—I just can’t imagine it.”

“What I can’t imagine is sending you out of here with no place to go.”

“You said he wouldn’t change his mind even if he knew.”

“That’s true, but…”

She eyed him dubiously. “But…?”

“You seem like a courageous woman. Just how brave are you, Miss Canterbury?”
Erin is giving away a copy of her book Refining Fires. Be sure to stop by The Borrowed Book on Friday for your chance to win!


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