Robert walked along the sidewalk, heading home, such as it was. In one hand was a sack of the potatoes his mother asked him to go buy. With his other hand he shoved his bag of camphor he wore as a necklace down into his shirt. He did this because Maria, who lived in the next block over was heading his way. He was fourteen years old and the smell was awful. It reminded him of the old lady down the street that owned all those cats. But his mother said it would protect him against getting sick. God help him if he argued with her. She had the board of education literally hanging up on a hook in the kitchen. On the street corner near his flat a newsboy called out the headline from the Philadelphia Inquirer. Some official starting a campaign against coughing and sneezing. How he was going to do that Robert didn’t know. Get rid of pepper? Whatever it was it would probably involve these stupid camphor and garlic bags. “Hi Maria,” he said softly, praying she didn’t smell the camphor. He could barely stand himself as it was.
“Hi Robert,” she said, eyes turned away. She dropped a bag of garlic into her purse, hoping he wouldn’t notice the smell. Her mother was insane about warding off the evil eye. She wouldn’t let her leave the house without this garlic. She was sure people could smell her coming from a block away. She pushed back her bobbed, brown hair. “How are you?”
He shrugged. “All right, I guess. How are you?” Gee this is really intelligent, Rob. He swallowed. “Are you going to the parade on Saturday?”
“I plan to.” She smiled. “Maybe I’ll see you there.” She looked at him with her big black eyes.
Suddenly words came out of his mouth. “Gowithme?”
“What?” she said, laughing.
Robert could feel himself getting red. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. Besides he’d been laughed at before. What’s one more time? He scuffed his shoes, shoved his hands in his pockets. “I mean, I thought we could, well…if you wanted…”
“We could meet up somewhere?”
He dared to glance at her but that was all. She was so pretty. “Yeah. If you want.”
“Sure. Where should we meet?”
Rob was so startled she agreed that his mouth stayed open for a minute or two. Finally, something in his brain told him say something you fool. He took a deep breath and said, “Maybe at that general store on the corner of Board Street. Joe’s. We’d have a good spot there. The parade starts at noon so…”
“See you there.” She smiled and headed off.
Robert felt much better. He grinned as he headed into his father’s drugstore. He even waved to him behind the counter. Then he headed up the back steps to the flat. It had two bedrooms. His mother and father had one bedroom, with James, the baby. His younger sister Bertha had the other. Robert slept in the living room. Cramped but he had known no other home so it didn't bother him.
“Rob! Is that you?” his mother, Mary called. It was late September and hadn’t cooled down much. Mary’s cooking didn’t help. The windows were opened so the smells and sounds of the city wafted in. Kids were playing stick-ball on the streets outside. There were the heavy oily smells and sputtering sounds of Ford’s Model Ts on the street. They dodged each other like kids playing tag. Inside the flat his Bertha grabbed baby Sam.
“No!” she exclaimed. “Bad baby! You can’t have my doll! You’ll break it.”
Mary wiped her face on her apron. “Good you got the potatoes. Now help me peel them, please.” His mother looked at Bertha. “Your sister’s busy.”
For once he readily agreed. Besides Sam needed a diaper change. Anything was better than that. He took the knife and started peeling.
“How was school?” Mary asked.
Robert just shrugged. He never knew how to answer that question. What he wanted to tell her was “what do you expect? It was terrible. It’s school, Mama. And your danged camphor doesn’t help!” The only thing that salvaged this day was Maria. And he couldn’t tell his own mother about that. “I suppose it was all right. Same as usual.”
Mary sighed. Just once she’d like to get a better answer than that. There could be a riot at the school and Robert would still say the same thing. She turned as her husband Bill came up the stairs. He kissed her hello and smiled at the baby who was crawling at his feet. He picked him up to hand back to Bertha. She asked him what she had asked Rob. From Bill she at least got conversation.
“Crazy Jack was in.”
“Again? He needs to get a job.”
“Nothing he can do with that bad arm of his.” And that wasn’t Jack’s biggest problem. “Anyway, he’s going on about this flu.”
“What is it this time? It’s just a summer cold. That’s what the Inquirer said.”
“Oh, you know him. He said the doughboys are getting sick and they’re covering it up.”
“Who is covering it up?”
“Krusen and the newspapers. The doctors know the truth, but the papers won’t publish them. It’s running through the army Jack says.”
“Hmm.” Mary took the potatoes from Robert. He got up and started studying his math sheets. Mary turned back to Bill. She began slicing potatoes to be boiled and mashed. “Well the widow Jones told me the James boy got so sick he turned blue. He couldn’t breathe. Kept coughing up blood. And it was coming out of his nose too. He’s over at Camp Funston.”
“The widow Jones,” said Bill, “is leading you down the garden path. I wonder about her state of mind. All those pills she takes..."
Mary gently touched his arm. “Bill! Don’t gossip.”
He smiled. “Well it’s true. And the same with Jack. Why would the director of Public health lie? Besides you know how that man is. When cars came out, he insisted the smoke would cause the sun and earth to get hotter. He’s not all there, Mary.”
Mary laughed. “He really thinks cars is going to make the earth hotter? How does that work?”
“God only knows, Mar. Something about the smoke making the sky hotter I think. When’s dinner? I’m starving.”
“Soon. Bertha! Come set the table please. And give Sam his pablum.”
“In a minute Mama!”
“Bertha, please listen to your mother.” Bill sighed. He’d had a long day and the last thing he wanted to hear was fighting. These crackpot theories from Jack were bad enough. He was almost sorry he even brought up the flu that they said came from Spain. It made his wife nervous.
Over dinner Mary said, “Do you think it’s a good idea to have this parade?”
Bill shrugged. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
Mary tightened her hands on her napkin, wringing it. “The returning soldiers will be marching. If they carry this thing…”
Bill sighed. He loved his wife but she worried too much. “Mary. It’s just the flu. Like any other flu. You’re miserable for a few days, then you recover. Take some aspirin to help cure it. That’s what The Inquirer is saying. It’s nothing. Why would the newspapers lie?”
Mary played with her food, trying to think of how to explain. It was true the widow Jones had gone over the edge since her husband died. Even before then she had been given to dramatics. But still, there was her face when she had talked about the James boy. Her eyes had been wide, her voice a whisper as if someone would hear. Denounce her for speaking the truth. She looked around nervously as she explained what happened to the him and others in the barracks. If Mary didn’t know better she’d say the woman was scared. Scared of whatever illness this was.
“They don’t want to say how bad it is,” Mrs. Jones had told Mary. “They need this parade to sell their government bonds. That’s what this is about. I don’t trust a danged one of these politicians.” She had leaned close to Mary then and said, “I wouldn’t go anywhere right now. Mark my words those who do will end up regretting it.”
Surely the woman had to be exaggerating. She always did. Mrs. Jones really couldn't be trusted as any kind of witness in court. But yet…“Maybe, just in case, we should stay home from the parade,” Mary said to Bill. "It might be safer."
Robert’s eyes got wide. “Mama! I can’t!” As everyone stared at him, he said, “I-I mean…I told my friends I’d meet them. Please Mama.” He didn’t want to tell her the truth. She might not allow him to go to the parade with a girl. She might say they were both too young, that it was ungentlemanly for a young lad to be with a girl without a chaperone. Times were changing but Mary was very old fashioned. She didn’t approve of these new ways. It was sinful what this generation of women are doing with their clothes, their riding in cars. Once Bertha had tried to discuss the suffrage movement with their mother. All she got was a tight lipped Mary saying these protests were no place for any lady of any caliber. Bill was more open to it than Mary herself was. So, Robert just couldn’t tell his mother about Maria.
None of this stopped his mother from arguing with him. “Robert…”
“Mama, please. I’ll do anything you ask. Just please let me go to the parade.”
Mary looked at Bill. “What do you think, Bill?”
Bill stared at Robert almost as if he knew what he was thinking. “Is this that important, son?”
“Yes.” I can’t say why Dad. But it is.
Bill smiled then. “Mary I really don’t see the harm. He can bring camphor and stay back from people.” He saw the relief on his son’s face and nodded, as if some ancient understanding had passed between them. He hunted in his pocket for his pipe. “He’s been a big help to me in the store and to you. About time he had some fun for a change.” He winked at Robert, who grinned back.
Mary tightened her lips. Still she wasn’t the kind of woman to go against her husband, no matter how kind and loving he was. “You will bring camphor with you. And be careful.”
“Of course, Mama,” he said.
Saturday at noon Robert was standing in front of the general store, camphor conveniently lost somewhere in the crowd. I can’t be smelling like old lady. Time ticked by. He couldn’t pace, the crowd pressed around him, but he hopped from one foot to the other. What if she was having him on? Teasing him? What if this was all a big joke to her? Just as he was sure he’d been had he saw her pushing her way through the crowd. He smiled, so relieved he felt like the time he had taken a sip of his father's brandy when he wasn't looking. Giddy.
“H-Hello,” he said, his voice cracking. Great. He swallowed and tried again, deliberately making his voice deeper. “Hello, Maria. You look swell today.”
“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said. “I had to get away from my mother. She’s a bit of a crackpot.” She grabbed his hand, causing Robert’s brain to nearly shut down. “Come on. Let’s go somewhere else. I don’t want her to find me.”
They pushed as best they could through the crowd, heading down the block. Eventually they found a spot near the front where both could see. Not that Robert cared. Looking back later he couldn’t have said what he saw. He was sure there were bands, the boy scouts marching, the returning soldiers. There were cars decked out in gay ribbons. There were big gaudy floats, their models of the new-fangled biplanes looking like they could just take off into the bright sunlight. But it was all far away. All he could see was Maria’s dark hair blowing back in the breeze. Smelling whatever soap she’d used. It smelled sweeter than any rose. If there was the faint scent of garlic it didn’t matter. It just reminded him of home-cooked meals. He could feel nothing but his heat, her warmth, his hand in hers. It was sweaty, he thought maybe he should wipe it. The problem was he couldn’t let go and she didn’t seem to mind. She wore a yellow dress with soft ruffles at the neck. The most beautiful color he’d seen.
“I think that’s the end,” she said, letting go of his hand.
Robert felt as if his mother had just woken him up for school. And he didn’t want this dream to end. Not just yet. “Come on, let’s get a soda.”
They sat in the drugstore-not his father’s of course. Robert felt like a man about town when he ordered and paid for the sodas. He asked her what she thought of the parade. They talked about that. Soon their conversation turned of school.
"That last test," she laughed. "I think I pulled a boner." Her voice made the Coca Cola taste all that much sweeter.
"You?" Rob smiled. "You're too smart for that. I'm sure you did fine."
"I wouldn't be so sure, but thanks. I bet you did okay though."
"I dunno." He stared at the soda wishing he could make it last forever. "I think that teacher is a damned fool-excuse me. But she is." She laughed, touching his arm. It made him feel as if the electricity from the lights were in him.
Finally, she sighed and said, “I really do have to get back before my mother kills me.”
He walked with her outside and part of the way. At an alleyway she stopped. “I’d better go on alone from here. It was really nice.” She smiled, came near him and kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you for inviting me,” she said.
Again, Robert acted by some other instinct. He put his hands on her shoulders and kissed her gently on the lips. He didn’t see her eyes widen, for by then he was halfway down the block. Once he looked back and saw her standing, holding her hand to her mouth, as if to hold his kiss there. He grinned and ran on.
On Sunday he awoke with a cough and a fever. By Monday he and his sister Bertha who was also at the parade was in a hospital because both were so short of breath they had turned blue. That was the day Mary showed Bill the newspaper and what Krusen had stated. “The epidemic is now present in the civilian population and is assuming the type found in naval stations and cantonments." By the end of the week Robert and Bertha were home, weak, coughing, but still alive. They were the lucky ones. Twenty-six hundred people were not. And that was only at the end of the first week of October.
At a grave Robert laid flowers and looked up at his father. It was nearly Halloween and a gauze mask covered Bill’s face. Robert had his pulled up as high as he could. It wasn’t to keep out germs. It was to hide the tears. He had on gloves and a coat, but he still shivered with a cold that no clothes could keep out. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever feel warm again.
“This was my fault,” he said. “Papa, if I hadn’t asked her…if I hadn't thrown away Mama's camphor, maybe...”
Bill laid a hand on his shoulder. “Rob. You couldn’t have known. Don’t blame yourself. No one knew.” Except a couple of crackpots no one wanted to listen to. That grave for crazy Jack Harmon wasn’t far away. The widow Jones, bless her heart was still alive and kicking. For what that was worth. She refused to leave her house so her daughter brought her groceries. Bill wondered if she ever would leave her house again.
“Maria was happy at least,” he said. “You took her to the parade. She knew you…cared for her. It ain’t much, son, but it’s something to…remember. You made her happy that day. It's...good.”
“But Papa…” he stopped. He swallowed hard. “Why, though? Why her?” Why anyone?
Because sometimes the Good Lord maybe isn’t as good as the pastor says he is? I don’t know. I wish I did. But Bill didn’t say that. He couldn't. Instead he pulled his mask down so his son could see his face, know he was there. He just said, “Cry, son, it’s okay. There’s no one else here. Let it out.”
Robert did, leaning against Bill as the cold wind blew. Bill held him as he did so. Robert was nearly as tall as his father although that day he felt very small. Finally, he began to shiver. Bill pulled his mask back up over his mouth and nose. And they slowly made their way home to a city that seemed as sad, as cold as the cemetery they stood in.