It is only a Thursday, yet Evelyn wears her pearls.
Her fiance had given her the pearls two weeks ago when she visited him at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. He was on the GI Bill and she knew he couldn’t have afforded them on his own. His parents must have helped, but she was smart enough not to ask. She adored the double strand necklace, and would cherish it for the rest of her life.
Other than the pearls, though, the four-day visit to Lafayette had not gone all that well. He said he was unhappy that she worked as a bookkeeper in Manhattan. In truth, she knew, it was the young male executives she worked with every day that raised his ire.
On the third night, after she left him at his dormitory and returned to the all-girl hotel where he insisted she stay, she tried to write in her journal. As she sat on the bed, all she managed was: “He is much better off without me.”
She crossed it out and sat on the bed, looking out the small window to the street below.
She wanted to write how she really felt. Maybe about the time one of her instructors from the community college asked her out to a show. Her fiance was still overseas back then, and she saw nothing untoward about getting to know her teachers outside the classroom. They saw a show at Radio City, but when it was over, the night was still so young. So he asked her if she’d like to go to Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem.
Imagine, Evelyn wanted to write, a girl like her going to Harlem late at night to hear the successors of Charlie Christian. And on the taxi ride home, when her teacher leaned close to kiss her, she didn’t stop him. One kiss, she thought, could have led to so much more. But she stopped at one kiss.
It wasn’t the kiss that had gotten into her veins. It was the four thousand people bumping and shoving to get into Radio City, past the coat check and into the dark theater. It was the sweat at Minton’s and the Pall Malls and the late-night jazz. It was buying bagels from the same cart every morning on her way to work. It was her own job and her own money and her own life. That is what she wanted to write, but she didn’t.
Instead, she wrote, “I wouldn’t make a good wife for anybody.”
She again crossed it out. She tore the page out of the journal, wadded it up and threw it across the room.
As she got ready for bed that night, she thought about her mother. Dutiful, pleasant, hard working. She thought how often her mother told her she needed to stop being silly, settle down, get serious. Life, her mother said, requires discipline, not romantic ideals. She vowed, as she nodded off, to make the last day with her fiance happy for them both.
They started the day with a light picnic on campus, walked down to the Lafayette Arch, then up to the Northampton Street Bridge. Halfway across the bridge, her fiance turned to Evelyn, held her hand and said, “I want you to stop working in the city. Actually, what I mean is, I want us to get married sooner than we had planned. We can apply for married couple’s housing at the college.”
Evelyn held on to his hand.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “I thought we had this all worked out. We were going to wait until you were finished with school.”
“I can’t stand us being apart like this. I thought you’d be happy.”
“I am happy,” she said. “It’s just a big change in plans is all.”
“I know it is,” he said. “In fact, I thought you should probably go ahead and quit your job. Maybe get a job here in Easton until the wedding.”
“Quit my job? Already?”
“Yes, I want you to stop working by the first of the month.”
Remembering the vow she’d made to herself, Evelyn agreed and their last hours together were, if not exciting, at least pleasant.
But today is now Thursday, the first of the month, and she is in the city. She has not returned any of her fiance’s telegrams. She gave notice at work two weeks ago when she returned from Easton, so there is no job for her to go to. Still she is walking the streets of Manhattan in the early, misty morning as if it were any other day. She carries her pocketbook with a few dollars, a make-up case. She wears her pearls, her white gloves. As she walks, she puts one hand in her jacket pocket and feels the crumbled-up paper she had picked up off the hotel floor. The jacket is her favorite, light gray wool, and she probably wears it too often.
It is Thursday, May 1, and Evelyn takes the elevator to the 86th floor observation platform of the Empire State Building. There is only a small fence, a minor setback, and 1000 feet between her and the city streets below. She removes her jacket and hangs it on the fence. She puts down her pocketbook and her make-up kit that is full of family photographs.
“Romantic ideals,” Evelyn says to herself. “What’s life without romantic ideals?”
It is Thursday, May 1, 1947, and, holding on to her pearls like a talisman, Evelyn McHale becomes unstoppable.
Author’s Note: On May 1, 1947, photography student Robert Wiles heard a thunderous crash and hurried to take an iconic picture that ended up in Life Magazine. The picture was of 20-year old Evelyn McHale. That picture inspired this story and is readily available on the internet by googling for images tagged “Evelyn McHale”.
Jason Stout lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and 5 children. His works have appeared in: Every Day Fiction, Flashquake, Shine!; and Pequin. Additional information is available at: jasonstout.jimdo.com.
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