WHEN I WAKE • by Evelyn Fletcher Symes

Some women drove the coast road. Crammed like sardines into tired, old cars. They pooled their ration stamps for gas and ate what food they could find along the way. Laughing and swaying they listened to swing music as the miles rolled beneath their threadbare tires. In the moments of silence between sparsely placed radio towers, small sighs acknowledging the unacknowledgeable, escaped them.

Elspeth chose the train. It was a sudden decision made months before when she first saw him. She was his; he was hers.

A friend offered a seat in her already-crowded car, a perfunctory invitation owing to the obligations of friendship. Elspeth slipped her a gas stamp she’d mooched from her brother and flung her suitcase in the back for the short ride to the train station.

Train tickets were hard to come by. But she was cute, bouncing with energy and cheeky. She got the ticket and left as soon as he boarded his ship.

She spent the long trip down the coast making plans. Lodging was the biggest problem. She wouldn’t settle for some old shed or tatty porch, like so many young couples were reduced to. It would be a proper place with a proper bed.

San Francisco was chockfull of women like her, all looking for a bed for the last days with their husbands before they went to war. Even in Elspeth’s small town, lodging was scarce. Unscrupulous people shamelessly gouged. The depression had unleashed an irresistible thirst for money. And, as always, deprivation sorely tested scruples. She understood this without rancor and made her way to the Ghirardelli mansion. To her surprise, a gold star was in the window by the door. She’d been counting on noblesse oblige, that archaic belief that with wealth came obligation. The unexpected sight of the star dampened her usually buoyant disposition into heavy dread. But life had taught her to grasp any opportunity of happiness with speed. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” she admonished herself and gave a brisk rat-a-tat-tat to the imposing door. She was just raising her knuckles to rap again when the door silently opened. A tall silvered-haired woman with imposing authority filled the doorway.

“I’ve come to see if you have temporary lodging,” Elspeth said, unconsciously straightening her spine in determination.

“I see,” the woman said.

“I have money,” Elspeth added defensively.

“I would expect so,” the woman said. She glanced at Elspeth’s suitcase, then back at her face.

“My husband will be joining me,” Elspeth’s delight at saying husband glowed from her face.

The woman raised her head in understanding and nodded.

Taking the nod as acquiescence, Elspeth grinned. “So, how much?” She slipped her hand into the pocket of her cardigan, fingered the small coin purse and frowned. She hoped she hadn’t been foolish eating in the dining car. It was more expensive than she’d anticipated, but she’d gone through the sandwiches she’d carried, and the dinner service smelled so good.

“Mrs. Ghirardelli.” A maid stepped into the doorway. “I’m sorry. I was gathering flowers for the table and didn’t hear the bell.”

Elspeth flushed. She’d not noticed the bell pull beside the door.

“Norma, this woman will take the bedroom across the hall from you and Tom. She’s here waiting for her husband to arrive. Mrs.?”

“MacDonald,” Elspeth blurted.  “Elspeth MacDonald. My husband is Liam. MacDonald. From the Battleship California,” she added with pride.

“Fifty cents a day, board included,” Mrs. Ghirardelli said, her eyes judging Elspeth’s reaction. When she saw Elspeth’s shoulders relax, a faint smile briefly fluttered across her lips.  “They can eat with you and Tom, Norma.”

“You’ve got cheek,” Norma said as she led Elspeth to the back stair.

Elspeth laughed. “My gamble paid off.”

Norma shook her head and smiled. “You’ve no idea.” She pointed out the stairs and left Elspeth to haul her suitcase up to the Ghirardellis’ servants’ quarters. The room was small and clean. After shoving her suitcase under the bed, she sat down and gave it a few energetic bounces. Loud, protesting springs made her burst out laughing. She wondered what the austere Ghirardelli grandmother would think of her young husband’s vigor.

Downstairs, she peeked into a gloomy library where a young girl sat playing Chopin’s Nocturne in E Flat, a metronome forcing her stumbling notes into predestined measures, while the grandmother, eyes closed, sat rigid-backed with the boned stays of propriety, hands resting on an open Bible on her lap. Elspeth retreated.  

A man, who she assumed was the young girl’s father, intercepted her as she looked timidly into the parlor for a phone. “Can I help you?” he said with severity. Elspeth answered the real question.

“I’m looking for a phone. My, mm, husband, will be arriving soon.” She beamed and continued more assertively. “He is arriving on the Battleship California. He’s a Bosun’s mate. I’m his Mrs.,” she added, her face flush with the new honorific.

“Ah,” the man said, a small smile showing briefly before he tilted his head encouragingly. “Do you need transport for him?”

This startled her. “No, no,” she said. “I only need to call my mother. He’ll call her to get the address. I have the bus number. My mother will tell him.” She smiled.   

“We will send the car,” a soft voice said behind her.

Elspeth whirled around to find the grandmother. She stood in the black satin of mourning, in the hall at the library door. “Oh, no,” Elspeth stuttered, the depth of her imposition dawning on her, “my husband is most resourceful. He would not want to cause undue inconvenience for you.”

The woman impatiently shooed her words away. “I shall be satisfied when I wake with thy likeness,” she quoted from the Psalms, and turned back to the library. On the threshold she called softly over her shoulder, her voice fragile with grief, “While you can, dear girl, while you can.”

Evelyn Fletcher Symes comes from a long line of story tellers and has all the attributes of tall tale tellers: exaggeration, understatement, and an uncanny ability to fabricate astonishingly believable lies. Her stories have been published in Typishly, Pure Slush: Lifespan Series, Flora Fiction, 50 Word Stories, and Tales of the Season.

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