On Friday afternoons the mood in the typing pool was a gathering storm. Heads bent tensely over keyboards. Machines clacked. High on the wall hung a big clock like a cold sun above the room. As the hour hand moved toward five the atmosphere became electric. Edith’s supervisor, Miss Grett, running the show from behind her desk felt it, too, though all she ever did was take a quick, furtive glance at herself in the small mirror she kept in her plain, sensible handbag.
Edith returned to the page she was working on.
August 20, 1948
My Dear Mr. Undersecretary,
As you know, in my capacity as Ambassador, I can only refer your request to the Belgian Counsel for Immigrant Affairs. It will be my pleasure to make such a referral. You may expect a response at the Counsel’s earliest convenience.
Dull, dull, dull! Week after week of typing requests for a conference room; or a list of those invited to a reception; or a summary of the latest report from the Belgian Board of Trade. The interesting subjects were off-limits to her, and to all the other girls in the room. Edith didn’t know much about their backgrounds other than they were all college-educated, but she thought her work as a mapmaker during the war would have allowed her to obtain the necessary security clearance to see more sensitive discourse. Perhaps the others had done their share of secret stuff, too, and were similarly denied. Who knew? Walter would say that wasn’t the kind of thing you could discuss.
She’d made no friends in the two months she’d worked there, probably because she didn’t want to talk about herself. There was always that phase of polite inquiry when you got to know someone, wasn’t there? She didn’t like answering personal questions and could easily avoid them—except at that inane luncheon last month. One of the typists had gotten engaged. Dora, it was. How did Edith end up sitting next to her? On her other side was Lillian, plain as a post, who looked cross every time she glanced at Edith because Edith was pretty, with dark hair and skin so pale Walter sometimes called her Snow White.
Lillian asked Edith if she had a fella. The reply stuck in her throat like a piece of stale bread. All Edith could do was shake her head. Lillian seemed pleased by her response and by the big plate of spaghetti in front of her. After that, Edith steered clear. She assumed they thought her a snob, or neurotic, or in the grip of some devastating sorrow that made socializing too painful to bear. Who cared?
The hour came, and the storm broke. Typewriters fell silent; excited voices rose. Chairs were pushed out and then back in. Drawers opened and closed. Shoes smacked across the tile floor. There were no coats or jackets to pull on, no umbrellas to pluck from the many stands positioned near the door. The weather was hot, sticky, and horrible, as only late summer in New York City can be, or so said Miss Grett, who didn’t complain much as a rule.
Edith removed her document and put it in the wooden box on her desk. You weren’t allowed to leave anything in your typewriter when you left for the day. She wished she’d had time to finish it because it was overdue. She’d been too distracted by the coming weekend and the thing that always cast it down—another letter from Walter, which she was sure to find when she got home. She’d traveled quite a distance in herself because of those letters. First, she dreaded getting them. Then if one didn’t come on the usual days, which were Tuesday and Friday, she worried. When his tone was neutral and pleasant, she was glad. Lately, he sounded unhappy.
From several rows away came a chorus of female squeals. A blonde typist in a pale blue suit extended her left hand to display an engagement ring. She must have just slipped it on because if it had been on her finger all day the fuss being made now would have happened before. The girl looked happy. The girls around her looked happy too, or was there some thin veil of jealousy in their eyes? Dora had gotten her share of hungry looks. Everyone wanted to get married. When it happened to someone you knew, and not to you, weren’t you a little frustrated? Edith didn’t know. She’d never felt that way.
On her way out she said, “Congratulations,” and got warm smiles from those who heard. In the hall, she passed the Belgian Ambassador’s office. The door was closed, and spirited classical music played on a phonograph inside—Beethoven’s third symphony, if she had to guess. She’d only laid eyes on the ambassador once or twice. She assumed being assigned to his department meant she’d see him daily, but the only one who did was Miss Grett. Monsieur Parthon was pretty much what one would expect—middle-aged, plump, balding, and with a splendid handlebar mustache. He’d called her “Mademoiselle” and nodded as he went by. That was over a month ago.
She stepped onto the sidewalk. The heat rose from the asphalt. Sweat collected on the back of her neck, just above the collar of her dress. The walk from the United Nations to the public library took her along East 42nd Street. In cool weather, the walk took about fifteen minutes. Today it would be longer. At the intersection of Park Avenue and 42nd Street cars were stopped in all directions. The traffic light was broken; the sidewalk was thick with people waiting to cross. A policeman blew his whistle and waved his arms. Some said it was a city’s noise that made you crazy and want to bolt for the quiet countryside; or the maddening nudge of the crowds; or the dirt that drove you into the washroom to rinse your hands the first chance you got, then, at home, to put your stockings right into the sink; even your handkerchief seemed to pick up soot, tucked away in your purse. Despite all that, Edith loved New York, though she hadn’t at first. After Cambridge, it was like watching horses stampede, and thinking all the time you’d be crushed, or caught up in a frenzy you couldn’t stop.
She crossed the street and kept going until she climbed the stone steps of the library. She went to the holds desk where her two titles were waiting. Both The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn had received rave reviews. Walter said reviews shouldn’t be the reason one read a particular book, but how else could she know if it were worth her time?
She stood with her books and waited for the uptown bus in the shade of an office building. The bus was late. Every bus in New York City was always late. The subway was no better, but who’d take the subway this time of year? Finally, the bus lurched into view, and of course, it was packed. She boarded and found a seat near the back vacated by a man who remembered at the last minute he wanted to get off. He yelled to the driver and the driver yelled back, “Take it easy, Mac! How far can I go in this jam?”
Why hadn’t everyone left town for vacation? Walter wrote Cambridge was still full of people because the summer term hadn’t let out yet. She supposed Boston might be empty. Walter hadn’t said. He didn’t venture across the Charles.
As the bus rolled up Central Park West, traffic thinned. Edith got off on 86th Street and walked west, toward Riverside Drive and the apartment building where she lived with Walter’s Aunt Margaret.
Sure enough, there was a new letter from Walter in the box. Once read, it would join the others in her dresser drawer. At the end of the month, she would tie the bundle with a blue silk ribbon. After a while, if they piled up, she’d move them into an empty shoebox.
Edith walked up the two flights of stairs. The elevator had been out of order for three days. The concierge was on vacation, and his nephew was hard to reach, so the tenants complained to each other. Mrs. Braddock declared she simply could not manage the climb to her third-story apartment with her arthritis, though Edith had observed her doing it, with good energy and effort. Mr. Pole said it was the fault of the Russians. They were out to destroy the infrastructure of American cities. Edith found this laughable. The Russians had enough problems of their own. They’d come out of the war badly, much worse than the Americans had. People just needed something to be unhappy about, which was so silly given unhappiness came to us all, unbidden and cruel.
Aunt Margaret was out. She had a bridge club. She would return woozy from gin and full of good cheer. Her disposition was sunny unless her thoughts turned to her late husband, dead now eleven years. He’d keeled over at his desk, working late one night, and wasn’t found until the morning. Aunt Margaret thought he was stepping out on her—she’d had her suspicions for some time. She hated thinking about all the hours she spent wishing him ill when he was already dead. She hoped his soul forgave her. She still tried to forgive herself.
Edith stood before the tall picture window in the living room and watched the summer light dance on the Hudson. Growing up in a land-locked state made her fascinated by large bodies of water. She longed to travel abroad, sail for days on a huge, luxurious ocean liner, walk along cobblestone streets, hear violin music pour from open windows, drink rich wine, devour sweet cakes—these were her dreams and fantasies of Europe.
She went into the kitchen and removed two pork chops wrapped in brown paper from the refrigerator. It was her turn to cook. Aunt Margaret was scrupulous about doing her share in the kitchen. She’d had a full-time cook before the war, but since then good help had been so hard to find. She’d managed as best she could on her own, dining out a lot with friends, or in their homes, and later, when Edith moved in, she tried her hand at some simple dishes she’d made when she was first married. Edith wished she wouldn’t. Her meat was always tough, vegetables boiled to mush, and everything had too much salt. Edith suspected Aunt Margaret’s heavy smoking made her taste buds crave the stimulation salt provided. She put the chops on a plate to bring them to room temperature. Some butter, flour, and chicken broth would make a nice gravy. There were peas she would shell. There were also two plump russet potatoes. She couldn’t decide if they should be mashed or baked and decided to bake them. She lit the oven.
She poured herself a glass of scotch from the bottle in the cabinet. She learned the habit of a nightly drink from Walter, who allowed himself two, sometimes more, depending on his day. He was often tense. Harvard Law School was demanding, and his admission through the GI Bill made him question his ability and wonder if they’d made a mistake in letting him in. Edith wished he had more confidence in himself. He was a bright, capable guy. Would he have been able to break so many Japanese codes, otherwise? And what of all those medals on his chest? They didn’t give those out to idiots.
She washed the potatoes and put them in the oven. Aunt Margaret would be home any minute. She probably wouldn’t be hungry with all that liquor in her.
The telephone rang. It sat on a small table in the hall. Edith didn’t get up. She didn’t want to talk to anyone. It couldn’t be important, in any case. Bad news would have come in a telegram. The ringing stopped, then resumed.
Edith went to the phone and lifted the receiver.
“Is that you, dear?” Aunt Margaret asked as if anyone else would answer that number.
“I’m running late. An old friend of Laura’s dropped in, and we’re going to play a few more hands.”
“What’s the matter? You sound funny.”
The sound of ice rattled in a glass.
“Well, I better get back. Don’t hold dinner for me,” Aunt Margaret said.
“I won’t. I’ll see you later.”
After she hung up, Edith turned off the stove, removed the potatoes, and put the pork chops back in the refrigerator. She wasn’t hungry. The heat flattened her appetite. She’d lost almost ten pounds over the summer. She didn’t mind. She liked having a good waistline. She finished her drink, went into the living room, and turned on the radio. She sat down on the sofa and slipped off her shoes. Energetic swing flowed from the speaker, and she was with Walter and their classmates at graduation, dancing to the rhythm of the band on the makeshift stage, rejoicing in being young, alive, whole, all the while knowing these conditions were transient.
Since VJ day, everyone had been looking for a way back to the feelings of those days, but those days were gone forever, replaced with the grim reality that peace was itself a tricky business and awfully hard to maintain, especially in a world where Little Boy and Fat Man could fall from the sky and set the world on fire.
She was low for days afterward. Newspaper photos were relentless. The world hadn’t been truly altered until that moment. She cried and begged to understand. Walter cited necessity.
“Necessity? Are you insane?” She’d come close to screaming.
He used his familiar tack—she spoke in ignorance—it was he who really knew the score. Seeing her color rise, he then said he admired her compassion. It was a beautiful trait in a woman and suggested the loving mother she would eventually become.
How could he talk of children, at a time like that? Who would bring children into this world?
He was dumbfounded.
“Every woman wants to be a mother,” he said.
He’d always sought to guide her, to instruct her. They fought bitterly once about this, and he admitted she knew her own mind.
Another time, he said he wished she didn’t read so much. He wasn’t sure it was good for her. This, from a man who loved literature! She thought of the two titles she’d brought home from the library, and how she would read late into the night and for most of the weekend. Then she remembered Aunt Margaret had invited friends for tea on Saturday afternoon, a woman and her adult son. Oh, drat! Entertaining strangers was the last thing Edith wanted to do. Poor Aunt Margaret thought herself an excellent judge of character and was certain Edith would enjoy this young man’s company. Aunt Margaret had assured her he was quite charming. His mother and Aunt Margaret went way back. They served on relief committees together in the thirties and later turned their energies to the war effort. Edith wondered if she could invent a good excuse, perhaps fake a blinding headache? She used to do that with Walter until her sense of duty got the better of her.
The music changed. She envied it. To become something else in an instant—poof!
She was a bit tipsy.
“Too bad about that,” she said.
The light dropped, and she turned her head to take in the river. Its surface undulated so beautifully she was filled with sorrow. Or was it remorse?
What was Walter doing right now? Researching some esoteric rule of property, no doubt—zoning, easements, and rights-of-way. He was interning for a law professor. He’d jumped at the chance. The professor’s recommendation could very well land him his first job out of school.
Walter’s nose was too big, and his front teeth too crooked for braces to correct. But they saved him, those teeth. He wanted to join the Air Force and the oxygen mask wouldn’t fit easily over his mouth. He was sensitive about his appearance, though he was a handsome man. It was his manner he should worry about, Edith thought. Sometimes at a party, he drank too much and dropped his “g”s. His laugh was more like a bark. The oversized nose turned red. Someone once called him Rudolph, but he hadn’t heard. Once, he dropped a cracker on the carpet and she crushed it to crumbs with her shoe. Then she stood there to keep it covered until the room thinned.
The telephone rang again, then stopped.
Edith made herself a piece of toast and a fried egg. Walter loved her fried eggs but fretted about the amount of butter she used. He’d had bad skin as a teenager and was leery of food he believed would clog his pores. Edith told him to wash his face twice a day and to shower regularly. She said he smelled bad, so bad she urged him to shave his underarms. It wasn’t something men did, he said. Well, perhaps a serious swimmer. Someone who competed, won medals.
Medal shmedal, she’d said. But he shaved them. Then he complained of how bad the itch was a few days afterward. She didn’t urge him to improve himself after that, though there were many times she might have, like when he didn’t have a handkerchief during a bad spell of hay fever. She caught him wiping his nose on his sleeve and wanted to box his ears. Later, she thought her response overly hostile. She bought him a set of handkerchiefs, washed, and ironed them. Yes, just as well as his mother would have.
Aunt Margaret came through the door calling “Yoo-hoo!”
“Laura’s daughter ran off with a Chinaman. Can you believe that?”
“I’d assume so.”
Aunt Margaret dropped down on the other end of the sofa and patted her face with a lace handkerchief.
“It’s murder out there,” she said.
“Have you eaten?”
“Yes. I don’t think there are any Red Chinese in New York. Unless they’re with the UN,” Edith said.
“Oh, it’s probably all some nonsense. Laura had had a few.”
Aunt Margaret’s diamond bracelet caught the light. Her brooch, in the shape of a peacock, was made of diamonds, too. Edith didn’t know why she wore such expensive things just to play bridge, but that was her way. One morning, just after Edith arrived, she threw an elegant satin coat over her nightgown to go down to the lobby to get the paper before the bellman brought it up. Aunt Margaret liked to be noticed. Edith did, too. She was just no good at it.
She remembered the woman and son who were due tomorrow.
“I don’t think we have any fresh cream for your friends,” she said. Aunt Margaret looked blank. “The ones you invited to tea,” Edith added.
“Oh, that stupid milkman!”
“You didn’t write it on the order.”
“What did he deliver, then?”
“Well, we’ll break an egg in our tea and be very . . . oh, I don’t know. There must be some dreary country where that’s a cherished custom.”
“Where eggs are in short supply, sadly.”
Aunt Margaret removed a gold case from her beaded clutch. She plucked out a cigarette from it, patted it against her opposite forearm, then lit it with a charming silver lighter decorated with the head of a dragon. Edith loved that lighter. Every time she saw it, she wanted to start smoking again. Aunt Margaret inhaled deeply, gratefully, mindlessly. Her gloved hand (gloves in this heat!) reached carelessly for the heavy crystal ashtray on the marble-topped coffee table by her chair. She put the ashtray in her lap and kicked off her high heels.
“You’re a clever girl,” she told Edith.
“Yes, I am.”
“But not modest.”
“What good is modesty?”
“What good indeed?”
Edith loved bantering with Aunt Margaret. Her gaiety and frivolity made Cambridge seem like a dream. Sometimes it felt as if she’d never lived there, never had things go wrong, and would never want anything more than what she had just then.
Late that night, alone in her room, Edith read Walter’s letter. It closed differently from the others. Rather than All Best he wrote Darling, I implore you. The time has come for you to return to the marriage.