She saw through the front-door window that the young man who had knocked wore a uniform. What did he want? All morning long she’d seen men driving by, some with their families. They were leaving the city―driven out, the radio said. Riots, clashes with police. And she all alone today . . . Still, he looked safe, decent, though much in need of a shave. Maybe just crack the door on the chain . . .
“Excuse me, ma’am. Could I trouble you for a bite to eat? I’ll work, of course, if there’s anything that needs doing.” He looked weary, famished. Through his open jacket, she saw sweat on his shirt and surmised a long walk in the heat. He put down a battered suitcase.
“I can’t think of anything I need,” she said. “But wait there while I make you a sandwich. Would that be all right?”
“That’d be just fine, ma’am. And a glass of water, if you don’t mind.”
“You won’t mark my house, will you?”
“Mark your house?”
“To let others know I’m a pushover.”
“No, I won’t do that.”
The way he looked her in the eye . . . bold . . . too bold? He has strong features, she thought. But why so pale?
Tar, her Newfoundland, came from the side porch growling. Did he sense danger or just strangeness? She relaxed a little when the man summoned him with friendly words, but she pressed the door shut until she heard the click.
Having caught only bits of news, she wasn’t sure what had happened. She spread a newspaper on the kitchen table and made sure it was today’s―July 29, 1932. Then she opened the icebox and took out sliced chicken, mayonnaise, and lettuce. She cut two slices from a loaf of bread. While spreading mayonnaise, she read the headlines:
TROOPS DRIVE VETERANS
FROM CAMPS IN CAPITAL
Army Ousts 20,000 from Anacostia
Who Burn Own Shacks and Scatter
FEW KNEW WHITHER TO GO
It was plainer now. President Hoover had called out the regulars, who cleared the disputed area near the Capitol, then charged the main camp along the Anacostia River. “Late last night,” she read, “General MacArthur and his cavalry bore down with bayonets, machine guns, tanks, and tear gas while the sullen bonus seekers hurled bricks and epithets. The fight did not last long.”
So many angry men. With all her lodgers out for the day, it might be better if the young man stayed awhile.
She had kept the windows closed, but the heat had found its way in. She lifted the lid of the icebox and chipped off ice for his water. After holding a piece to her cheek, she rinsed it and dropped it in a glass.
He was sitting on the porch in the shade, his back against a post and one foot on the top step. She intended just to hand out the lunch, but stepped outside so he wouldn’t have to get up. Not much older than her son, she thought. Had he resisted the authorities and been driven from the city? He looked up and thanked her, taking the glass and the plate.
She stood with her back to the opposite post and watched him. He had placed his jacket and cap on the railing, his suitcase beside him. Many who passed Molly’s Home on “tourist row” carried a suitcase, likely job hunting, and he wasn’t the first she had fed. Few knew whither to go . . .
“Mmm. Good,” he said. “First real vittles I’ve had in days.” He gave Tar a piece of chicken. “By the way, ma’am, I’m Ben Hunter.”
“Call me Molly.”
Her husband, she reflected, had fared better than most veterans, having left the war as a Navy Commander with good connections. As his business failed in the Depression, he worried about the family. Stress may have caused his heart attack.
Watching cars streaming north, she recalled her excitement as a little girl seeing sheep herded down this very road. Now a pickup truck went by with a man and woman in front and three children in the bed. An American flag trailed from the tailgate. They loved the country but hated the government.
“Why are they leaving town?” Ben mumbled half to himself.
Puzzled, she said, “Weren’t you there? They were forced out.”
“No, I’ve been on the road, hitching and hiking down from Cumberland. I came to join the B.E.F.―the Bonus Expeditionary Force. They’re here for the bonus we were promised after the war. Who drove ’em out? Why?”
“The Army. It’s been on the radio.” She returned to the kitchen and brought back the paper. He was eating, so she read aloud.
He slowly shook his head, seeming perplexed and dejected. Then he started to cough, and she saw black spots on the bread. When the spasm was over, he wiped his mouth on a bandana. “Sorry,” he said.
“Are you sick?”
“No . . . coal dust.”
Concern and curiosity prompted her to ask, “You’re a miner?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He showed no attitude, but added, “Black lung killed my pa. Guess it’ll get me―down the road a piece, though, I hope.”
She refrained from further probing. Was he out of work? Did he have a family? A place to stay? “I see,” she said. “You’re on your way to Washington.”
He nodded, took another drink, another bite of the sandwich. “Why’d they force them out? Lots of folks need that bonus bad―need it to live on.”
“The President, in a statement, said there were communists among them.”
“Don’t seem likely.”
“They were squatting in government buildings under construction. First the police attacked them and they fought back. One was killed and several policemen were injured. Then the Army took over.”
“But Anacostia? I thought that was outside the city, sort of a wasteland. What harm did they do?”
“I don’t know. You wouldn’t think we’d storm our own veterans, would you?” Neither spoke for a while. “What will you do now?” she asked.
“Look for work, I guess.” He finished the water and let the ice fall against his face.
“Do you want to stay here? I have a room that’s not rented.”
He smiled. “I’ll have to get a job first.”
“You could pay me later.”
She let him have the room on the closed-in back porch, a few steps from the toilet and shower in the basement.
The next morning, Saturday, he appeared in civilian clothes, shaven, his sandy hair combed. Lodgers came and went, and he greeted them politely. Without being asked, he mowed the lawn and thinned the apple trees. Sunday he took the streetcar into Washington for his first visit, and Monday he looked for work. That evening she invited him to share supper.
“Tell me about your search,” she said as he sat down at the kitchen table. At a glimpse of his sweaty back, she turned up the oscillating fan.
“Tried a few places. Government offices said I’d need to pass a civil service test.” He added wryly, “They don’t give one for coal miners.”
“Did you try anywhere else?” She filled his plate with meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and green beans, then poured a glass of milk. Tar, lying beside him, looked up hopefully.
“Yes. I figured I’d make a good streetcar driver. Seems pretty simple, since you don’t have to know where you’re going. But they’re turning men away.”
The next day he applied as a janitor at hotels and apartment houses. He told the managers he knew furnaces, which drew only sneers in early August.
“Why don’t you try restaurants?” she suggested. “Maybe they need a waiter.”
“I did already. You have to belong to a union. Besides, I might cough on the bread.”
It pleased her to find his sense of humor intact, if rather grim. When he described using streetcar transfers to loop the city on a single dime, she pretended to scold him and they both laughed.
That evening she mentioned him in a letter to her daughter, calling him a victim of these awful times. It was better long ago when they didn’t have a penny to spare but felt secure. They should vote for Franklin Roosevelt in November. No, she couldn’t get away to see the new baby, but maybe they could all meet here at Molly’s Home for Christmas.
Ben stayed two weeks, spending the days in the city. Then one morning he rapped on the back screen door and said he was pulling out.
“Well, stay for breakfast,” she said, confident that he wouldn’t pass her sunny kitchen with its aroma of freshly baked rolls.
He entered, leaving his suitcase outside but letting Tar squeeze in beside him. As they chatted, she made sandwiches to fortify him for his journey. She took the rolls from the oven. Bacon, eggs, and home fries followed. Over coffee, she asked, “What’s next?”
“Back to the mine, I guess. Plenty of coal to dig. I’ll send you my first pay.”
“You don’t have to do that, Ben. I’m getting scads of tourists and rovers.”
“You’re a very kind lady,” he said, rising. “But I will, anyhow.”
As he reached for his suitcase, she pushed the dog out to keep it from following them through the house and out the door. Tar pawed at the screen. Then she led the way to the front hall, and Ben thanked her for her hospitality. She watched from the porch as he crossed the road to hitch a ride headed north. He turned and waved. She waved back, smiling despite the mist in her eyes.