Author’s Notes: In chapter 6, Elizabeth Reed’s grandmother Ma and her younger brother Ben hatched a scheme to get Elizabeth corresponding with a solider. The plot thickens in chapter 7. Enjoy.
I’m writing discussion questions for book clubs and Accelerated Readers. I’d appreciate your help on questions.
Words and Letters
Monday, August 18, 1941
Elizabeth was startled awake by the creaking of her bedroom door. Bare feet padded across the floor and covers were pulled back. She waited before saying, “Kind of late, huh?” There was no answer. “What time is it?”
“After midnight.” Peg answered wearily.
“How much after midnight?”
Peg yawned. “Oh, about…two or three hours. Were you asleep?”
“Sure.” Elizabeth walked to her sister’s bed. “But it was a fitful sleep.”
“Worried about something?”
There was a pregnant pause, finally broken by Elizabeth. “When you come in this late, it worries me.”
“I can’t help it.”
Peg shifted on the mattress. “I can take care of myself.”
“Are you doing anything that could . . . get you into trouble?”
“What do you mean?”
“Were you with a soldier tonight?”
No answer. Elizabeth tried again. “Are you involved with one of them?”
“What do you mean involved?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Sure I do.” Peg turned her back to the wall. “Listen, you’re the last person I need any love advice from.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean.”
“I’m afraid I do.” She put her hand on Peg’s shoulder. “But I need your advice.”
“Advice on what?”
Elizabeth lit the lantern and pulled out the teacher letter. “On this.”
Peg sat up and scooted into the light. “Caddo Parish School Board.” She squinted at her sister. “You’re not . . . ”
“Just read it.”
She watched her twin read the letter. It always irritated her how Peg mouthed words when reading. Peg stopped her oral recitation and looked up. “You applied for a job in Shreveport?”
From Curt: I received a critical letter this week on the two sister’s being fraternal instead of identical twins. How would that improve or change the story in your mind?
Elizabeth was startled at what she saw in her sister’s face: was it fear . . . or sadness?
“You’re gonna take it?”
Peg laid the letter in her lap. “Then why are you asking for my advice?”
“Because I want to know what you think.”
“Does that really matter?”
Elizabeth felt tears welling. “It matters a great deal. We’re twins. Few people can understand the bond we have. We were womb mates.”
Peg winked. “And now we’re roommates.”
Elizabeth stammered, “I’m serious. I need your advice.”
“I don’t have the slightest.” Peg held the letter up. “Why would you want to go up there and teach?”
“Because I’m dying on the vine here.”
“That’s the way you feel?”
“Look at me. I’m twenty years old and still sharing a room with my sister. Twenty years from now, I’ll be an old maid schoolteacher living in this bedroom, making muscadine jelly, and leading the WMU at church.”
Peg shook her head. “That does sound pretty bleak. But why Shreveport?”
“I like it up there.”
“Didn’t you stay there two years ago when you were . . . um . . . sick?”
“Is there a man up there?” Peg knitted her brow. “Lizzie, your hand’s shaking.”
“It’s because I’m worried about you.”
“Sounds like you’ve got enough to worry about without licking over my calf.”
“I’m worried that you’re going to . . . “ Her voice trembled. “I’m scared. Scared that you’re going to mess up your life.” Peg looked away, but Elizabeth moved into her view. “I’m worried that you’re going to get pregnant. I’m not sure Momma and Daddy would ever get over it.”
“I’m a big girl and can take care of myself.”
Elizabeth pulled out the second letter. “That’s exactly what I said.”
“What do you mean?”
“That’s what I said when I got involved with . . .” Her body quivered. “When I got involved with him.”
“Him. The soldier that broke my heart up there.”
“No, in Natchitoches.”
“You never told me.”
“It all happened so quick.” She handed her the other letter.
Peg slid closer as she read it. “The soldier’s name was Bradley?”
“No, that was the baby’s name. Bradley.”
“Oh, my goodness. Elizabeth. I never knew.” Tears streamed down Peg’s cheeks. “I always suspected something happened to you up there, but I never dreamed . . . .”
A series of loud booms shook the house, setting off the dogs and chickens. Peg went to the window. “They’re shooting the big guns again.” She squinted. “Doggone, I see the first light of morning. We done talked the night away.”
Another loud explosion rattled the windows. Elizabeth trembled. The ground’s shaking beneath my feet, both literally and figuratively. I wonder what’s next.
# # #
Harry sat with the other two outsiders in their platoon—Shorty and Cohen—They’d been up since dawn.
An artillery barrage to the north had started before dawn, awakening everyone. The three G.I.s sat outside picking out ticks acquired during last night’s long march.
Cohen had rolled up his sleeves and was scratching his right arm. “This itch is driving me crazy.”
Shorty examined his arm. “When’d you get poison ivy?”
Cohen had scratched his arm raw. “It started yesterday. So that’s what it is?”
Shorty disappeared into the tent and came out with a cake of soap. “Rub this on it.”
“What is it?”
“Lye soap. I borrowed it from a farmhouse last week. Knew it’d come in handy.”
“Does it work?”
Cohen lowered his voice. “I’ve also got it on my rear end.”
“How’d you get poison ivy on your behind?”
“Shh, I don’t want everyone to know.”
Shorty tossed him the bar of lye soap. “I’m not sure I’d use it there. It’s pretty strong.”
Harry, sitting in his underwear, stuck a hot match head to a tick. “Shorty, why don’t you ever get ticks or chiggers?”
“Because I go out prepared.” He lifted his pants leg, revealing green leaves stuffed in his socks and boots.
“What’s that?” Harry said.
“Merkle bushes. The leaves are coated with a wax that insects don’t like.”
Author: Country folk have always used “merkle bushes” (Wax Myrtle) in their dogpens and under houses to repel fleas and ticks. The waxy leaves have a substance that does the trick.
“Do you see me scratching and picking out ticks?”
A whistle blew, followed by a voice, “Mail call. Everyone up.”
Shorty stood. “Let’s go, Harry.”
“Nope. I don’t get mail.”
“You never know.”
Cohen put on his shirt. “Your family never writes? Do you have a mother or father?”
“I’ve got both. My father broke things off after a, uh, little problem I had. ” There was a familiar tightness in his chest. “My mother—she just does what she’s told—so she doesn’t write either.”
Cohen and Shorty trotted to the gathering circle of men at mail call. Harry eased back into quiet sanctuary of the tent, determined to ignore the jostling men and mail clerk’s loud voice. “Snider. Schwartz. Johnson.”
“Shepherd. Cohen. Nickels. James. Krakow. Watson.”
Harry closed his eyes and lay back on his cot.
“Knuckles. Newsom. Miller. Jagodinsky. Bridenhagen.”
After a pause, the clerk yelled, “Miller. Pvt. Harold Miller.”
Harry stuck his head out of the tent.
“Miller—Harold. Private Harold M. Miller.”
Shorty waved. “Harry, you’ve got mail.”
Harry pushed through the crowd, forgetting he was clad in his boxers until Nickels said, “Sure like your outfit, Miller.”
Shep slapped him on the back. “I can’t believe it—somebody wrote you. Maybe it’s Shelly, wanting to make up.”
“Her name’s Helen.” Harry thought about slugging him.
He grasped the envelope and caught the faint scent of perfume. I can’t remember the last time I smelled anything feminine. The address, written on the floral-patterned envelope, had a slanted handwriting. It didn’t bear a Wisconsin postmark, but a smudged Louisiana town. It was dated August 16, 1941—just two days ago. It was clearly addressed to him with his correct serial number and APO address. Letter in hand, he tried to pass nonchalantly through the crowd. Once past, he glanced at the return address.
He sliced open the envelope. What’s a Bundick, Louisiana? The letter featured the same slanted handwriting:
Recently, your convoy passed through DeRidder,
you tossed a bulett with your name on it.
You through it and said, “Write me.”
After much thought, I’ve writen you.
I’m a schoolteacher living near DeRidder.
I’m an old-fashioned girl who enjoys making friends.
If you’d like, I’ll gladly be your pen pal.
Send a photo, and I’ll send one of me.
Harry held the letter up to the sunlight as if there might be some hidden message in it. Glancing past the mess tent, he saw The Three Musketeers—Shep, Halverson, and Nickels—watching him like three hungry buzzards.
Shep cupped his hands. “Is it the bow-legged one or the old maid teacher?” Harry walked behind a tent, re-reading the letter, wincing at the various misspellings and shaky penmanship. I sure thought a schoolteacher would write better than this. He tried to envision what ‘Elizabeth Reed’ might look like, but could only see Miss Crump, an old maid schoolteacher who’d spent a long career torturing second graders like himself back in Milwaukee. She was just the kind of person who’d happily write a young soldier, and she was just the type no red-blooded soldier would want to write back. Harry closed his eyes. It’d be like being pen pals with your own grandma.
He glanced again at the handwriting. It looked as if someone’s grandmother had written it. Stuffing the letter in his pocket, he tried to shake the image of an old schoolteacher contentedly passing her evenings writing lonely soldiers.
This image faded and was replaced by Shep’s vivid description of the leggy good-looking girl on the DeRidder street. One image nearly nauseated him; the other made his heart beat just a little bit faster. Which—if either—of these images most resembled the real Elizabeth Reed?
Harry wasn’t sure, but he intended to find out.