“The Surprise of It” – a short story by Diane Lederman

April 10th, 2023

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“The Surprise of It,” a short story by Diane Lederman, was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 62nd Short Fiction Contest, and is published with the consent of the author.

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photo by David J. Connelly via Pixabay

photo by David J. Connelly via Pixabay

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The Surprise of It

by Diane Lederman

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Farewell Service for Base Hospital No 6

Trinity Church Crowded During Impressive Ceremonial for Doctors and Nurses of Massachusetts General Hospital about to leave for France

“The spirit of devotion to the National Cause was conspicuous at the services at Trinity Church yesterday afternoon for Base Hospital No. 6, Massachusetts General Hospital, the officers, enlisted men and nurses of which numbering 200, all in unform; made an impressive appearance in the central section of the auditorium.”

Boston Globe, June 4, 1917

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“For Sale – elegant furnished 6-room suite, hardwood floors, electric lights, steam heat, rooms well rented, nurse leaving for France, will sacrifice if sold at once.

 Boston Globe, Sept. 9, 1917

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…..She wandered from room to room in her six-room suite, her hand to her chin, looking at the cradle to her life for the last six years – the mahogany chiffonier, the Governor Winthrop desk, the Morris chair, and the tall oak bookcase teeming with titles she had collected since her high school years when she understood the power held between story covers.

…..As she searched for furnishings, Lillian Holland learned about herself – that she liked simple but well-crafted pieces found at antique venues, furniture stores and from people like her, selling because they were leaving their lives behind.

…..She had sought the solid and reliable, items that would not need to be replaced. She hoped who ever bought her things would appreciate that dependability.

…..Her father was here in spirit too, her mother in smaller ways. The Steinway baby grand her father bought when she was seven was the living room jewel. The piano was meant for this home, he said, and had it moved from their house in Back Bay without her even asking. She lifted the lid and played a few notes, the sound as rich as the cheesecake her father loved. She had been so distracted these last weeks, she had barely played. She even had cancelled her weekly lessons with her dear friend Clara Ecker without properly explaining why.

…..Her father’s two oak bookcases from his law office stood like soldiers next to the hunter green sofa in the den. Her uncle Ben – her father’s law partner- knew she fancied them and had them delivered after her father died. He and her father were friends all their lives, brothers-in-law after her father married Ben’s sister.

…..Her father helped Lillian find this home just after her mother died, as if he knew he would not have long either. He didn’t know his heart was under stress. Even as a nurse, she saw no symptoms of illness. She berated herself for weeks until a doctor she knew told her there was no way she would have known. His words eased some of her guilt.

…..Her father wanted her to have something of her own, seeming to know what Lillian knew – she would work always – but not marry. They had never talked, but she sensed he understood. He was observant, always studying his clients to detect whether they were innocent or guilty.  “Helps me defend them if I know they are truly innocent. Not that I won’t provide for them otherwise. If they lie to me about that, I wonder where else they might prevaricate.”

…..She admired her father, his integrity, and his curiosity. She hoped she had inherited a little of both. Liked to think she was as perceptive. She wondered what he would think about this war. So many opinions, yet to doubt could be traitorous.

…..“Owning something is security,” he told her when they looked at the suite. The ten-room house she grew up in was too large for her alone. “Too grand even for the three of us,” he told her. They had expected a larger family. Norah their housekeeper often remarked about her lovely room. “Expected to be tucked away in a closet somewhere,” she told Lillian once. Norah wasn’t much older than Lillian and Lillian loved her Irish accent and begged for stories of her life there. Sometimes the telling made Norah sad. Lillian felt so sorry then she would hide in her room until dinner.

…..“Without something of your own a landlord could sell your home, and then you’d have nothing,” Lillian’s father had told her. “Picturing you here in this wonderful place is as much for me as you. I won’t worry. I know you say ‘don’t worry’…But one day when you have…” He stopped. “Let’s talk to the owner.”

…..The owner, a tall man in his late 40s, had slipped into the kitchen to give them privacy. He was moving to New York for a new job; he had told them. He had liked living here very much.

…..What would her father think about what she was doing now?  She hoped he’d approve although he’d likely fret about her safety. She might have contended she could just as easily be hurt or killed here by an automobile – either as passenger or pedestrian – as she could abroad caring for men injured in the trenches in France. She imagined her lawyer-like argument – one of course with evidence. “You acquit yourself well,” her father would say.

…..Lillian could have said no to her superintendent if her father’s objections were too feverish. She doubted his opinions would have been that strident.

…..Her father had supported her nursing even if he hoped she’d follow him into law. She much preferred the compassion of nurses to what she understood about her father’s work and the difficulties she would contend with as a woman. It wasn’t a fight she wanted to engage in and never regretted her decision.

…..She opened her desk drawer and took the ad that ran for the first time today in the Globe to make sure she had included her telephone number since no one had called. “Elegant six-room suite, hardwood floors, electric lights, steam heat. Nurse leaving for France. Will sacrifice. Must sell soon, all furnishing. Tel. Beech 4140.” So, it was here, including a plea to expedite the sale since she was sailing on the Aurania with other hospital nurses and doctors in one month.

…..The letter she received nearly two months ago from Emily protruded from a mail slot. She sat to reread it. “Please come. We need you. I miss you, Your Em.” The letter came two weeks before Superintendent Parsons asked Lillian to join the Base Hospital No. 6 operation Mass General was sending to France.

…..“You are one of the best I’ve seen,” Superintendent Parsons said. “You have instincts, you can’t teach those.” Lillian was flattered, felt her face burned with the praise.

…..She hadn’t seen Em in more than two years. Twenty-six months and one week to be exact. Em returned to Baltimore telling Lillian she had to try to “get right.” Lillian didn’t think like that – about “getting right.” Many, like Em, did. “I can’t do this. I have to go home. I’m sorry.”

…..Lillian could barely breathe but said nothing. Em had looked at her, biting the inside of her cheek. She was pale and tears filled her eyes.

…..“When do you leave?” Lillian asked.

…..“Three days,” Em said. “Today is my last day here. Need to pack and clean.”

…..Em started to reach for Lillian’s arm, then seemed to think better of it and let her hand fall, as if she would scorch her fingers. Lillian couldn’t believe Em hadn’t told her sooner. It might have been agony anyway, to know and be helpless to the outcome.

…..That night, Lillian barely slept and considered calling her supervisor saying she was ill, then storming off to Em’s apartment. She would tell her she was wrong to leave, that she was a coward.

…..“You’ll be miserable with your family,” she wanted to say.  Em had talked often about her mother’s insistence she find a suitable husband. She told her mother she had other priorities and her mother had scoffed.

…..“That’s one of the reasons you came to Boston,” Lillian reminded Emily. “To get away.” But confronting Em would just make Lillian to feel worse – to part with such sourness in her mouth.

…..So Lillian, fixed her hair through the tangles, scrubbed her face as if she could remove the sadness from her skin, and went to the hospital. Her work would provide ballast.

…..Attending to her patients – dozens over the next five days – took her mind from Em’s departure.

…..But she wasn’t sleeping and a week later, she was so tired she collapsed holding sheets she was delivering to a room where the patient had soiled himself. The next moment she was in the supervisor’s office area with her feet raised and her friend Marianne wiping her face with a cloth.

…..“You gave us a fright,” Marianne said, her freckles brighter with worry, wisps of dark hair curling from beneath her cap. “The doctor will be in a moment, then you are to go home. Mrs. Wendell’s orders.”

…..        Lillian didn’t want to leave. It was hard on the wards with so many off in France. Little did she think, she’d be one of those soon enough. But at that moment, she worried she might make a mistake and hurt someone if she wasn’t attentive enough, so she agreed to go home.

…..In the cab that the hospital insisted she take, she told herself she had to be stronger. She gave herself permission to sleep and return to work tomorrow and never think about Em again.

…..But the hospital was steeped in memory. Passing the dining room, she remembered the macaroni and cheese Em loved, how she’d smear sauce over her lip if eating in a hurry and then laugh at her messiness, how she complained about the coffee every day but still had two cups.

…..Anytime Lillian saw Dr. Cannon she recalled how Em made this gruff doctor smile and he always nodded at Em when they passed in the hallway and doffed an imaginary hat at the same time.

…..Em always found something bright to hold on to and Lillian loved being around her.  Em seemed to take that same pleasure from Lillian. Their friendship became even more than that for 16 glorious months.

…..After Em left, Lillian considered leaving for France, a place free of memories only a constant need from the front. But so many were leaving then and there were many patients at the hospital who needed care that she hesitated and stayed. She played piano, went to concerts, and photo plays and read. She worked long hours – staying in motion really – trying not to think about Em.

…..She had followed the stories from nurses in France who wrote letters to Superintendent Parsons. One described the pride of her own courage and skills she was using in such a time of danger and need.  Another wrote about how she didn’t know how she would adjust to a life at home when people won’t need her in the same way.

…..Lillian hadn’t known that Em had gone to France. When she first found the letter in her mail and seeing Em’s handwriting and the return address on the envelope corner, her stomach spewed acid.

…..The letter sat for three days before Lillian opened it and another two days before she read it. She hid the letter in a desk drawer unanswered and hoped that something would tell her what she should do. Then she was asked to make the trip to France. The dispatch seemed like an omen to beckon or provoke caution.

…..She had expected that Em would have married by now. She was a girl who enjoyed comfort and Lillian had trouble imagining her in a tiny cubicle in France with just a ration of coal to ease the constant chill.

…..She was afraid to alter her life only for Em. Maybe she’d tell Lillian that she had made a horrible mistake by asking her to come and Lillian would have lost everything.  If she was to go, it had to be for herself, not for Emily.

…..Em wrote again three weeks later as if she had read Lillian’s mind. “I know you are doubting my intentions. I know I was unreliable. But I will be yours, I promise you. That is, if you feel anything for me.”

…..Of course, she did. She always would. Em had to know that. Or maybe she didn’t.

…..“War changes you,” Emily wrote.  “Every day, one experiences a new kind of awakening. The Boche attacked again two nights ago, and shrapnel fragments hit the operating theater. We were so intent on saving the soldier on the table we barely noticed. It was only when we finished that I saw blood on my uniform from fragments that had penetrated my skin. It took two hours to remove them all and I was anxious to get back to my patients. I was too exhausted to be of much use. But we saved the soldier. His name was Tommy – a Boston boy.

…..“I won’t lie. It’s cold and damp. There’s fighting around us all the time and so much pain. Yet more would die if we weren’t here fighting for their lives.

…..“Lillian, knowing we could die any moment and not being afraid, I feel so silly running from you. So come, please.  It will change all that you are and all that you know. But you won’t be worse for it. And we will be together if you dare.”

…..They wouldn’t be at the same hospital, but she had looked at a map and the bases were only 20 kilometers apart. She didn’t know how they would see each other or how often. But they’d be close.

…..Lillian wished her father was here to offer his counsel, to reaffirm her decision. She thought about visiting Uncle Ben, but his new wife was ill, and she was never very friendly to Lillian. His first wife died two years before and there had been questions about whether she might have killed herself.

…..She thought about confiding in Marianne, but they had never talked about Em like that. Lillian had chided Emily for leaving but, she had hardly demonstrated her own bravery, never telling her friends about Em, not even Clara who she knew since grade school.

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…..The afternoon sun was still bright and washed the den in a beautiful gold, she’d miss her home. Standing now, she moved to the bookcases. She’d take a few with her and maybe pack a few boxes she couldn’t part with and ask Marianne or Clara if they could keep some until she came back.

…..The telephone rang and Lillian’s heartbeat hastened. “This is Lillian Holland,” she said, in her professional nursing voice, hoping someone wanted to see the flat.

…..“So, Lillian Holland, when were you going to tell me?”

…..“Oh, dear,” Lillian said, a little disappointed that it was Clara, not a buyer but still happy to hear from her friend. “I haven’t told anyone.”

…..“No excuse.”

…..“Maybe I was afraid anyone I confided in would try to talk me out if it.”

…..“I almost fell out of my chair when I recognized your suite in the advertisement. Why I was even reading those ads, I can’t say.”

…..“I’m sorry, Clara.”

…..“Did you talk to anyone about this? You could get yourself killed. A nurse from Boston was killed two days ago.”

…..“It’s different than with Oscar.”

…..Lillian heard Clara take a breath.

…..“How is he?” Lillian asked.

…..“He leaves next week. I saw him last week on visiting day. He has a friend in the same unit, Lenny Bernstein. Do you know him?”

…..“I don’t think I do.”

…..“They seem close actually and I think it’s a relief for him to have someone to go off with, although he hasn’t said that. When I asked if he felt prepared for things, I hate to say the word war. He said he’d be ready by the time they left.

…..“Lenny was nearby and said they would definitely be ready and how valuable the training was. ‘They’re working us good, aren’t they, O?’ Then Oscar gave him a huge grin as if they shared a secret.

…..“I wish Oscar would tell me what I’ve done to trouble him. But we’ve talked so little since this whole draft business. I feel like I hardly know him. With him going off,” she took a breath. “I’m sorry I got so upset with you. You’re brave and I do admire you for it.”

…..“It’s right. You know how that is. When you know, you know. How does he know Lenny?”

…..“From the West End House. Lenny’s two years older. He’d been away at college but just got back. What are you doing right now since our time together is growing shorter?”

…..Lillian would miss Clara, her boldness, and her confidence. With her piano lessons, she knew she would see her at least once a week, and often they had lunch afterward. She should tell her about Em.

…..“I’m just sitting around waiting for someone to call.” Lillian laughed.  “I was thinking about going to the art museum. I live so close and yet…”

…..“Feel like company.”

…..“Nothing would make me happier,” Lillian said. “Meet me at the main entrance, say half hour?”

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…..Before leaving, Lillian looked at the telephone willing it to ring but then left, knowing it was a fool’s errand to sit watching. This is the first day after all. Someone could also write of their interest in a letter.

…..The streets were crowded with a colorful array of attire and Lillian took it all in. The mild October night must be drawing people out of their homes. It would be cold soon enough.

…..“Lillian Holland, is that you?” Lillian turned toward the voice.

…..“Marianne Wilson, yes, it is me.”

…..“And what are you doing out this way on such a fine evening?”

…..“Meeting my friend Clara to go to the art museum. Do you know Clara Ecker, she plays piano all over.”

…..“I don’t get to concerts much. My mother has a hard time getting out and I don’t leave her for that long after work.”

…..“You’re welcome to join us.”

…..“I’ll walk you there.”

…..They passed Frank’s, the familiar “Lend Him a Hand Buy Liberty Bonds,” sign in the window, packed as usual, and Maisy’s flowers.

…..“I’m going to France,” Lillian said.

…..Marianne stopped walking and looked at Lillian, as if she hadn’t heard or didn’t believe her.

…..“I didn’t know you were thinking about it.”

…..“The superintendent asked. I didn’t have a good reason to say no. Might you be going too?”

…..      “You need a three-year training program. I just have the two-year course.” Marianne pulled on her lip, red from constant tugging.

…..       “Besides, I can’t leave my mother. My brother goes off next month. That’s enough for her to bother about. I mentioned France in passing once and she went pale as our nursing whites. It feels wrong if I went, selfish. Would you go if your parents were alive and needed you?”

…..“I don’t know,” Lillian said, wishing her parents were here for her to worry about. “Em wrote.”

…..“Oh,” Marianne said, her brow tightened, making it look as if her brows were connected. Maybe she remembered how Lillian had reacted that day, understanding without saying a word why. But she looked disappointed and seemed to shake her head slightly. Lillian wasn’t sure.

…..“Haven’t thought about her in ages,” Marianne said. “Had you heard from her?”

…..“Not until this. She’s over there now. Said I should come and just after that, Superintendent Parsons asked if I would go.”

…..“Are you worried?”

…..Lillian smiled. She didn’t know if Marianne was asking about war or Em. Maybe Clara worried about both. She smiled. “Ask me again in a year.”

…..“Will you write?” Marianne asked, her voice quiet now.

…..“Of course,” she said.

…..Marianne looked as if she wanted to say something. Lillian thought she heard her whisper, “don’t go,” but wasn’t sure that’s what Marianne said.

…..“Hello….” Clara yelled and waved as she walked quickly along Huntington Avenue to catch up to them.

…..“Clara,” Lillian said, kissing her friend on the cheek. Lillian introduced Clara and Marianne.

…..“Ah, another brave soul? Heading off to France, worrying your friends and family.”

…..“I’m staying behind,” Marianne said. “I should go. Nice meeting you, Miss Ecker.”

…..“You’re not coming to the museum?” Clara said.

…..“Thank you, no.” Turning to Lillian, Marianne asked after her last day.

…..“The end of the month so you’ll not be rid of me just yet.”

…..“I certainly don’t want to be rid of you at all,” she said, moving away quickly as if trying to catch a trolley. She did not turn back to say goodbye.

…..“I surprised her with this,” Lillian said. “I think it upset her.”

…..“See,” Clara said. “Friends worry about you.”

…..“Strange a little. I’m not sure that’s the reason.”

…..“We are indeed strange, but sometimes I do think it’s the surprise of it. We want to keep all the people we love safe.”

…..“Is it terribly hard about Oscar.”

…..“It is, but he said I’m not to protect him. So there we have it After the museum, I want to hear everything about your plans.”

…..Lillian exhaled and said, “Well there’s everything and then there’s everything. Which everything would you be seeking?”

…..Clara smiled. “Everything of course.”

…..“It’s not a short story.”

…..“I’ve got time,” she said.

…..Lillian wondered if Clara, like her father, already knew.

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Diane Lederman was a reporter in daily journalism for 40 years, and also wrote fiction for 25 of those years. She has been writing fiction full time since retiring from reporting three years ago.  She has taken writing workshops at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the Muse in Boston, and has recently had stories published in Jewish Fiction. Net., Adanna Literary Journal, Verdad and Kestrel. “The Surprise of It” is from a collection of a dozen stories about the impact of the so-called Great War on the West End Community in Boston.

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Click here  to read “Mr. P.C.,” Jacob Schrodt’s winning story in the 62nd  Jerry Jazz Musician  Short Fiction Contest

Click here  for details about the upcoming 63rd  Jerry Jazz Musician  Short Fiction Contest

Click here  to subscribe to the Jerry Jazz Musician  quarterly newsletter  (it’s free)

Click here to help support the continuing publication of   Jerry Jazz Musician,  and to keep it commercial-free  (thank you!)

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One comments on ““The Surprise of It” – a short story by Diane Lederman”

  1. Diane this is fabulous – I want to read more and find out what happens next. You are a gifted writer, I would buy the book! Great job

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