A Remember WENN story
by Linda M. Young
When the alarm clock jangled she was disoriented, unable to recall why she felt the need to awaken herself in the close darkness of early morning.
And then she remembered: it was Christmas morning and in two hours she would be on a crop-dusting plane, headed for home, headed for Elkhart.
No child awakening before dawn that day threw himself out of bed with more abandon than did Betty Roberts in those moments before sunrise. Her apartment was chillythe management at the Barbican didn't believe in overheating their tenantsbut she cared little. Instead, she immediately padded down the hall to the bathroom to wash her face, then coat it liberally with cold cream, knowing that without it the flight would chap and dry her skin. She combed and tied her hair back with a kerchief, then brushed her teeth and gathered her toiletries from her cubbyhole in the bath.
She had slept only two hours, but was too excited to be tired. After the surprise of the plane flight, she had been ferried from apartment to apartment, gathering a pair of wool trousers from Scott and a heavy fur hat from Maple, plus an Army blanket and thick woolen socks from Mackie. The latter had treated her to a taxi ride home and she'd spent another hour cramming clothing and shoes into a soft-sided satchel compact enough to fit in the footwell of a small plane. It was a good thing she had shipped her gifts home express earlier that week; she certainly couldn't have carried them now!
Once finished packing, she had fallen asleep on top of her bed, snuggled in her bathrobe and warm pajamas, to be wakened by the fat alarm clock and galvanized into action once more.
Now she began to dress, methodically saving herself more packing as well as keeping herself warm aloft: several layers of underwear, wool socks over cotton stockings over silk stockings, the hated union suit her mother had insisted she take with her and that she had not worn since leaving Elkhart, flannel pajamas over that, and finally a thick cable-knit sweater made by her grandmother (in the firm belief her wayward granddaughter would freeze to death in the big city) and the woolen trousers, belted with one of her own belts because even on the final notch the original article was too large.
The final result made Betty start to perspire, and she laughed at her incongruous image in the mirror, but she didn't care. She gave into impulse for a moment and spun in a circle, hugging herself, hardly able to believe in this miracle.
Then, her satchel ready, she tidied up the already neat room, made certain she had her return bus ticket and some money, then donned her coat, the fur hat, a thick knitted scarf, and her boots, and last of all locked up her room, something she did not ordinarily do. She intended to go downstairs and call a taxi to take her to the small airfield Capwell Cropdusters maintained west of town.
But when she arrived in the lobby of the Barbican, an additional surprise awaited: the dour elderly security guard was expecting her. Seated at the entryway, George Ferguson's only concession to the holiday was the wearing of a red carnation boutonniere on his vest. Otherwise he seemed unimpressed by the lobby's draping of silver garland hung with plain blue glass ornaments from Woolworths, a decoration arranged by three of the tenants.
"I was just about to come call you, Miss Roberts," he said primly, moving from behind the desk. "There's a taxi waiting for you."
"But I haven't called..." Betty began, confounded.
"The gentleman outside says he ordered it for you," Mr. Ferguson added, with a disapproving note all too evident in his voice.
Mackie! Betty thought in relief, and added briskly, "It's a friend of mine from work, Mr. Ferguson. He called for it so I wouldn't be late." She trotted for the door, then turned, satchel swinging against her coat. "Merry Christmas, Mr. Ferguson. Thank you!"
For a minute the elderly man almost, almost smiled.
Surprises seemed to be a fact of life since Gloria Redmond had turned up on WENN's doorstep two days ago. Standing bundled in an overcoat, but hatless, standing next to the taxi in the freezing darkness of early Christmas morning, his bare hand already on the door handle, was Scott Sherwood.
For a moment Betty's mouth went dry. It had been awkward enough last night, when word of Scott's good deed had passed around the station. Her thank you had sounded terribly inadequate for the wonderful gift he had given her. In the presence of the rest of the crew and Miss Redmond, Mr. Sherwood had become offhand, as if it were something he would have done for any valued employee, and that troubled her, because she was certain there was something else behind the gift, something she couldn't identify, but which made her uneasy.
He grinned at her, the usual devil-may-care smile that she'd learned to beware, but he merely exclaimed, "Better get a move on, Betty Roberts. Capwell's best pilot is probably already warming up his engine for you."
The way he said it, more than the words, made her flush. "Mr. Sherwood, I didn't expect-"
"Hey, Betty, I'd never hear the end of it if I let something happen to you on Christmas morning," he said smoothly, handing her into the taxi and climbing in after her. The moment the door shut, the taxi moved on, evidently as in a hurry on the snow-slick streets as was possible, the driver already knowing his destination. Scott, in the meantime, looked his companion up and down critically, from hat to scarf and boots. "You did take our advice, I hope. Mackie and I have experience at this..."
Betty gave him an exasperated look and said briskly, "Mr. Sherwood, I'm covered in so many layers that an archaeologist would find me fascinating."
He grinned in return. "Miss Roberts, I defy any man to not find you fascinating."
The only good thing about the blush that followed was that it warmed Betty to her toes. When she finally spoke again, she had to coax assurance into her voice. "I really didn't need an escort, Mr. Sherwood."
"Afraid you're stuck with me now," he responded jauntily, leaning back in the seat.
In a few minutes the silence became too much for her. "Sowhat will you be doing today, Mr. Sherwood? Do you have family in the area?"
He hid his amused reaction to her formal phrasing. "Relatives? Not anywhere around here." He flashed her another smile, adding cheerfully, "Betty, I spend every day talking to sponsor after sponsor after sponsorand most of the time I like it. But today I'm going to relaxor at least I will after three. I kinda told Mackie and Mapes I'd help 'em out a little on the Christmas broadcast this morning, lend a voice so to speak, when they need it. Then I'm planning on taking in a good movie, maybe looking up a couple of old friends, and finally having a late supper at a nice restaurant. A nice quiet Christmas."
Betty tried to make up her mind what to believeif anythingof this statement. Quiet and Scott Sherwood seemed to be mutually exclusive concepts.
"I didn't realize there'd be any movie houses or restaurants open today," she finally ventured.
"Aw, the Bijou near my place never closes. And there are always places to eatnot everyone takes a holiday on Christmas." He gave her a thoughtful, sideways glance. "I suppose in Elkhart it's different."
At the word "Elkhart" Betty broke into a blooming smile. "I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't be taking a holiday today."
"Big doings at your place?" he asked casually, his attention seemingly diverted by the city streets that were gradually thinning around them.
Betty needed no prompting. Dreamily, she began talking about a freshly-cut fir hung with a combination of home-made decorations and carefully collected glass ornaments; the house draped and decked with fresh pine roping, holly, and red velvet bows; a blaze in the big stone fireplace; the dining room table groaning with food her mother and sister would have been cooking and baking since yesterday. Without meaning to, Scott Sherwood found his attention drawn away from the taxi window and to her animated face illuminated as the streetlights flashed by as she wove a tale as compelling as her radio dramas. He was only diverted when the taxi swung through the opening in a sagging chain link fence and slowed down to negotiate the gravel-paved road that led behind a collection of small aviation sheds.
Released from her spell, Scott directed, "Up there," indicating a spotlighted hangar.
Betty's emergence from her carefully constructed reminiscence brought her to an equally unreal reality. Perched within the glare of the spotlight was a squat red biplane with registration markings on its tail and the legend "Capwell" on its side in large cursive letters. An incongruous sprig of holly dangled over the pilot's compartment as well as the passenger seat, while a short young man in a thick leather jacket and shapeless grey trousers seemed to be tending the engine.
The taxi braked before the hangar and Betty found her heart suddenly thumping in her throat. She had never flown before, not even with barnstormers at the county fair, and for a moment she was frightened. Scott hopped out of the cab, walking around to her door and helping her out; as if sensing her unease, he began to chatter about the plane. A Travel-Aire, he said, an excellent plane, and as he lifted her satchel from the taxishe tried to give him money for the fare, but he waved her offhe rattled on about it, airspeed, cruising altitude, engine power. His recitation attracted the attention of the pilot, who wiped his oily hands on a blackened rag hanging from one of the struts and turned to them.
"Done some flying, Mr. Sherwood?" he asked curiously, eyeing Scott's natty overcoat and pressed trousers.
Scott grinned. "Some." He patted Betty's shoulders. "Looks like it's almost dawn, Hollingswood. Your passenger here is raring to go."
The young man stuck his hand out to Betty; she was dazed enough to take it and not dazed enough to be unaware that it was still exceedingly slimy. "Andy Hollingswood, miss. It's a pleasure to be taking you home for Christmas."
Betty said sincerely, "I'm just sorry to be taking you away from your home for Christmas."
He gave a comical grin. He had thick blond hairlike Scott, he was hatless and his ears were turning an interesting shade of crimsonand grave grey eyes in an angular face; you could almost cast him as the courageous pilot in an aviation adventure film. "Heck, the paycheck I get for this will be worth the trip. Not much doing for a single guy at Christmas."
Then he turned to Scott. "I'm going to get this crate going. Think you can hand her up?"
"Piece of cake," answered Scott.
He looked around, then spied what he was looking for just inside the door of the hangar. Excusing himself, he vanished inside and emerged with a set of wooden steps. "Up you go, Betty."
"I have them," he finished, shepherding her up the steps. "Now up on the wing-"
"-and then into the seat," Betty said, taking a deep breath and summoning all her courage. "I think I get it, Scott."
Scrambling onto the wing, Betty lifted one leg and then another carefully over the side of the airplane, dropping in and settling into the deep, narrow seat. Scott clambered up after her, passing her satchel, and she settled it under her legs while Scott unfolded Mackie's blanket and tucked it around her. She was glad of it, for the leather seat was ice cold and she had to restrain her shivering.
As he wrapped her in the blanket, the engine suddenly roared and the plane shuddered to life. Scott jerked, losing his balance, and Betty's hands came up quickly, clad in their thick woolen gloves, to snatch at his icy hands and steady him. For a moment their eyes met.
"You must be freezing!" she shouted over the roar.
With anyone else he would have passed it off with a smart remark, but on this Christmas morning, face to face with Betty Roberts, he suddenly he didn't feel like lying. "Yeah, I could use hot coffee and a warm bath right now," he joked over the noise.
She began to ask him why on earth he hadn't worn a hat and some gloves, but was interrupted by Hollingswood, who had left the airplane while they were speaking, and now had returned at a lope, wearing a heavier coat, gloves, and a aviator's fur-lined cap, pushing past Scott to fiddle with something in the cockpit. Then he turned to his passenger and her escort. "I figure this trip will take about six hours, Miss Roberts," he explained loudly. "Should take five with the tailwind I expect, but I plan on stopping in Marion for fuel and to get us something warmand, well...for other things. It's going to be pretty cold up there. I left a thermos of hot chocolate down there at the footboard. Did you find it?"
Betty fished downward and discovered the tall steel vacuum bottle, holding it up.
"Good!" he told her. "You keep that near you and take a drink when you need it. We'll get it refilled in Marion. You wrap up nowdon't need a nice girl like you with frostbite, okay?"
"I'll keep warm," Betty promised, tucking the bottle next to her.
"Much obliged for the business, Mr. Sherwood, but this is where you get off," Hollingswood added, turning to Scott.
Scott's dark eyes, still on Betty Roberts' muffled figure, abruptly shifted. "What? Oh, yeah." He thrust out a stiffly cold hand. "Have a good trip, Betty. See you in a few days."
She reached up one more time, to clasp that cold hand between her warm ones. "Scott, I don't know how to thank you for this-"
"Miss Roberts, if you don't stop thanking me for getting you home for Christmas, you never will get home for Christmas." He grinned, then swung off the wing of the plane, hopping down since Hollingswood had already removed the steps, and strode for the waiting taxi. He turned back to the plane, and gave Betty a cheery wave as Hollingswood clambered into the cockpit, and then the plane jerked, then slowly, then more quickly, began to roll toward the roughly paved runway.
Betty tossed a last wide-eyed glance at Scott Sherwood standing sentinel beside the idling taxi. She shivered in unison with the bumping of the plane, wondering if it were too late to back out. Then she thought of Elkhart, swallowed, and reached down into her satchel for the one item she had left on top, a brown paper bag from her neighborhood grocery. If her stomach could not stand the takeoff, she was prepared not to ruin her good coat.
Behind the tail of the now racing little plane, dawn painted the first lines of pink and orange on the eastern horizon as the sky above it turned a pearly grey. But Betty was still facing the stars of the previous magical evening, and as the Travel-Aire leaped into the air like a trained jumping horse, her spirit leaped with it even as her hands gripped the edge of her seat.
"Second star to the right," she murmured sternly, "and straight on until morning."
She never did need the little paper bag; as she drew breath in the clear cold air her balance cleared and in a few moments she became used to the swaying sensation of being airborne.
"You okay, Miss Roberts?" Hollingswood called forward presently.
"Fine!" she yelled back, the wind snatching her words from her.
"Miss Roberts?" he called, a few minutes later.
"It's kinda hard to talk up here. I hope...well, if I don't talk a lot, I hope you don't take it the wrong way."
Her sharp eyes were already picking out bits of light below, church steeples, grain elevators, even municipal Christmas decorations. As they gained altitude, there was just enough light to make out the shadows of roads and houses, stores and barns. She was enchanted.
"Mr. Hollingswood, you don't need to talk at all if you don't want to. I'm doing fine here."
"You sure, Miss Roberts? Thanks!" and she fancied she could hear his sigh of relief even over the engine racket.
She leaned her head back and closed her eyes, trying to doze, snug in her clothing and blankets, but it was impossible. The landscape coming to life below her was too compelling.
What a Christmas program this will make next year! she thought joyfully as she snugged her scarf and blanket closer around her face and resumed sightseeing. Beckyno, Trish! Trish, that was itperfect! Sometime next summer she would send Trish on a visit to the city. Enamored of city life, Trish would move there in the fallget some type of secretarial positionshe was already taking a typing courseperhaps meet a nice young man. But she'd be homesick for Bonneyville Mills and arrange to take the train home. For some reason she would miss the train, but a miracle perhaps a daring young man with a barnstorming troupewould get her home to Gramps and Uncle Charley in time. She could almost imagine the "nice young man"tall, perhaps his hair thinning a bit, a brilliant writer...
Trouble was, that daring young flyer kept intruding, a raffishly handsome fellow with a lopsided smile and thick dark hair.
She was so busy concocting this fantasy and deciding how to describe the landscape below that she could hardly believe over two hours had passed when she realized the engine noise had changed. She turned to speak to Hollingswood, dread building in her stomach.
"Nothing wrong, Miss Roberts," he called to her before she could ask. "We've slowed downwe're only a few minutes out of Marion."
He continued to call out to her exactly what he was doing and why as he instituted landing procedures. Her stomach leaped each time the airplane made a fresh motion, but she managed to keep calm and in the end the exceedingly bumpy landing merely bruised her elbows and knees rather than making her embarrassingly sick.
"This isn't a regular stop on anyone's route," he shouted to her as they trundled up to the one building on the exceedingly bleak, windswept field. "It's an emergency landing field and there's nothing much here. I'm awfully sorryit won't be very comfortable." Betty didn't think so, eitherthe structure looked like something out of Dickens, a bare little shack with one window, the door nevertheless decorated with what looked like scavenged pine branches from a Christmas tree lot, tied with a limp red ribbon and hung on a big tenpenny nail.
Once the airplane had rolled to a stop, Hollingswood helped her from the seat; despite the blankets and layers of clothing her legs were stiff and sore, mostly with inactivity, but partially with the cold, and she felt like a marionette as she descended the wing and slid to the ground. The short walk from plane, plus the hasty trip to the cramped privy out back, finally loosened her chilled joints, and she had regained her sea legs once inside.
As they walked to the shack, Hollingswood had told her a buddy of his was manning the place for him that morning, to have a warm beverage waiting for them. Betty was now astonished to find the "buddy" was a young lady scarcely older than herself, clad in a leather flying jacket over a heavy red plaid flannel shirt and thick grey woolen trousers. Her name was Carrie Latham and apparently she took flying lessons from Hollingswood. Short and a little chunky, Carrie was nevertheless cheerful and outgoing, and so friendly with Hollingswood that Betty wondered if flying lessons were the only thing passing between them. Indeed the two of them left the shack for ten minutes while Betty sipped hot coffee, ostensibly to "check something on the plane," and were laughing and joking when they returned. Hollingswood remained in the shack only a few minutes, long enough to gulp some coffee and retrieve his warming gloves from a bench near the stove, and then returned outside.
Betty hadn't minded being left alone, despite the cheerless interior of the shack. She cupped the mug of fragrant black coffee in her gloved hands and pulled a peeling wooden chair next to the stove. The glowing pot-bellied relic reminded of her childhood, when they still had the parlor stove and their kitchen range had been heated by wood. Dad had converted everything to gas several years before, butand she smiled as she thought of ither mother still complained she couldn't get the same flavor and quality in her baking, even if the big black nickel-trimmed kitchen range with its water reservoir and warming shelf had just been converted to gas rather than replaced.
When she heard the biplane's engine roar to life once more, she realized it was time to go. Betty said a thank you and farewell to Carrie, then trudged back to where Hollingswood already had the plane warmed up.
Standing in the warm backwash from the engine, Betty explained to him that she had made a long-distance telephone call to her family the evening before and told her father to come pick her up at the fairgrounds just east of Elkhart; the trotting track was unfenced and large enough for a small plane to land. He nodded agreement, looking reluctantly back at the shack.
"Are you flying back today?" Betty asked impulsively as she climbed back onto the wing.
He grinned, realizing he'd been found out. "Yes, ma'am. Carr...Miss Latham and I are having Christmas dinner together. We...talked about it while I was checking out the plane."
"Then we'd better get going," Betty said with a smile, clambering back into her seat. "It wouldn't do to make you late for your dinner date."
Her stomach, toes, and fingers thawed by the combination of coffee and fire, she dozed through most of the rest of the flight, waking only to the now distinctive sound of Hollingswood throttling down as he pulled the small plane into a gradual turn to approach their makeshift landing field. Immediately alert, she craned her neck trying to see if she could pick out any landmarks. To her delight, she spied the white spire of the First Baptist Church immediately, then the tall yellow towers of the Elkhart County Cooperative's grain elevator and the clutter of buildings that made up Elkhart's main street.
But the plane grew no closer to those, only circled lazily down, gradually losing speed and sinking ever lower until it slid to a very long stop on the snow-swept long grass of the interior of the trotting track. She braced herself against the front of her seat, frightened for the first time since their initial take-off, but Hollingswood coaxed the plane into eventually coming to a halt, although the little craft described a slow half-circle before stopping.
The grandstand was directly before her, and Betty's eyes sought the familiar dark green Packard that would tell her that her father had arrived. Disappointed, she told herself sternly that they were probably a few minutes early and he would be there presently. Thus fortified, she grasped the big satchel with her clothing and tossed it over the side of the plane, then began climbing out herself. Behind her, she saw Hollingswood starting to do the same.
"Don't!" she protested. "As soon as I'm clear you can take off again if you like. You do have Christmas dinner waiting."
Hollingswood, his face already chapped and scarlet from the wind, flushed even redder. "Miss Roberts, I promised Mr. Sherwood and Mr. Capwell..."
"Nonsense." She pointed to the grandstand, not 100 feet away. "I'll stay there until my dad shows up. It's out of the wind and he'll be here soon."
"Back in your seat," she said in the same stern tone of voice she had used so many times on a recalcitrant cast.
"Yes, ma'am." His face took on the glow of a small boy as he settled back in the cockpit.
Betty was balanced on the wing now, holding onto one strut for balance. With a little jump, she was on the ground and had swept up her satchel.
"Good-bye, Andy!" she called, walking backwards away from the little plane. "Merry Christmas! Tell Carrie I said merry Christmas as well!"
"I will, Miss Roberts! You have a swell Christmas, okay?"
"I promise! You, too!"
When she had put enough distance between herself and the aircraft for Hollingswood's taste, the engine revved up to speed once more. She stood on the mingled surface of tangled weeds and drifted snow in the midst of the racetrack, watching the red plane accelerate as it jounced over the slippery field, finally lifting into the air. No longer earthbound, it was suddenly beautiful, as graceful as a swallow skimming upward. A lump rose in Betty's throat as she gazed at it climbing toward the wisps of cirrus clouds that sketched themselves against a brilliantly blue winter sky.
Hollingswood waggled his wings at her as he turned the aircraft about, heading east to Marion, and she watched, enthralled, her attention so much his departure and the fading drone of the engine that she missed the song of bells and swish of snow behind her until the last moment, then the sound made her gasp and wheel.
Now in front of her, just pulling to a stop, was a big black sleigh, gleaming with fresh polish, pulled by a matched team of brown Morgan horses with sleigh bells suspended over their collars, and driven by an extremely self-satisfied looking man with a dark beard and gold-rimmed eyeglasses.
Betty almost dropped her satchel. "Dad!"
Then her feet fairly flew; she moved so quickly that the near horse threw up its head in alarm. She saw her father curb the animal, heard his reassuring, "Whoa, Jerry!", and then she had tossed the satchel into the sleigh and herself into his arms.
In a second David Roberts had lashed the reins around the whipstock and was hugging his younger daughter, his relief in her safety and happiness to have her home evident in his watering eyes. Betty, too, was both laughing and crying, exclaiming as she finally pulled away, "Oh, Dad, how Christmasy can you get? This is our old sleighbut we haven't used it for years. Where did you get the horses? Surely you didn't hire a team just for me..."
He placed a gloved finger over her lips. "They're George's."
Her eyes widened. "George's? But-"
"Your brother is determined that farming is what he wants to do for a living. So, starting in the spring, instead of renting out our land to Neely Hall, George will be farming it himself. Eventually he'll buy the land from me out of the profitsor so he says. But I don't doubt he can do it." His face took on a mischievous cast. "Young Yeoman Roberts declared over breakfast one morning that he 'wanted no truck with a smelly tractor' and would be looking for his own team." The grin softened. "Mother and I saved him the trouble. These two are from Karl Wasser's stockbest Morgans on the place. I gave them to George this morning, and he insisted we polish up the sleigh and I fetch you in styleseeing how you always go so overboard on Christmas."
"Me!" Betty exclaimed spiritedly, knowing full well he was teasing her, "I go overboard! This from Mister-Let's-Put-Up-a-Wreath-Hallowe'en-is-Over?"
"I have no idea what you are talking about, dearest," he said loftily, eyes still twinkling. "I do know if we keep sitting here talking about Christmas, you aren't going to get a chance to celebrate it!"
Betty laughed aloud, the sound ringing in the cold air. "How funny. That's the same thing Mr. Sherwood said to mewell, almost the same thingbefore I took off this morning."
Her father gave her an odd look as she settled down in the seat, gathering the thick traveling robes from the floor of the sleigh and snuggling them around her and her father. He removed the reins from the whipstock, clucking to the team, and they swung around, breaking into a trot.
Betty was still chilled from her plane ride, cheeks stiff with cold, her feet feeling as if they were encased in blocks of ice. But in a trice she had forgotten that discomfort and put her face into the wind as the team pulled away from the fairgrounds and turned down the back lanes of the outskirts of Elkhart, past quiet fields covered with snow and houses and outbuildings frosted in white. She began to sing "Jingle Bells" and her father lost his troubled expression and joined in with her.
Fifteen minutes later the sleigh pulled into the yard before a big white house wrapped on two sides with a spacious open porch. As Betty had described it earlier, it was draped in fresh pine garlands and adorned with red velvet bows and brightly-berried holly sprigs. Her heavy winter coat slung over her shoulders, Clare Roberts was waiting on the porch, wrapped in the inevitable flowered apron over her best bottle green dress, and George was lounging against the railing of the steps, bundled in a sheepskin hunting jacket. As the Morgans were pulled to a stop, he stepped forward to take their heads.
Betty hardly recognized her little brother. He seemed to have grown several inches since she left home fifteen months ago, and had grown a moustache. When he saw her staring at him, he grinned and exclaimed, "So what do you think of my Christmas presents, big sister?"
She didn't answer, but remained gazing at him, at the house, horses, sleigh, her mother coming down the steps to meet her, as if it were all too overwhelming for her to take in at once. The dark paneled front door, hung with a massive cedar wreath decorated in its own pale blue berries and another velvet bow, was partially ajar and from inside she could hear the sound of voices and the Victrola playing Christmas music, smell the sweet odor of applewood smoke drifting down from the chimney, and from somewhere, came the wafting, rich odor of roasting turkey and mint...
"Go on, chickadee." Her father's voice came to her as if into a dream. "It's not good to keep the team standing out in this cold."
And then she was falling into her mother's arms as she was helped from the sleigh, stiff, brain half dazed from her nap on the plane combined with the late night and early morning. Shivering despite the traveling robe still around her, she was led inside to the steamy warmth of the front hall and more greetings: Patricia with little Tim astride her gently swelling stomach, Aunt Sara with her hands floured from making the gravy, then in turn brother-in-law Harry, her mother's brother George, her dad's brother Rick, his wife Mary, and their five-year-old son Davey, who barreled from the parlor into her arms.
"Cousin Betty, Cousin Betty, you're here!" he said, placing a sticky kiss on her face, his own liberally smeared green, pink, and red with the remains of ribbon candy.
"I'm glad to see you, Davey," she laughed, hugging him despite the glue.
"Me, too! Daddy said we could open presents when you finally got here!"
Betty simply laughed as Mary gasped at her youngest's bad manners.
"Well, I'm sorry to say you're going to have to wait a little longer for your presents," Clare interjected sternly. "Cousin Betty's had a long trip and needs to go upstairs, change her things and relax a while. Now go back into the parlor and listen to the records. Or you may put the radio on if you wishor you can help your sister set the table."
"But Grandmama..." Davey wailed as Betty protested, "Mother, no I can wait..."
"Nothing of the sort, Miss Elizabeth. You're cold and tired and need some warm clothing at the least. David Paul Roberts, go do as you're told."
Davey sighed expansively. "I wish you'd had a faster airplane, Cousin Betty," he said plaintively, but retreated into the parlor, giving wide berth to the dining room where his seven-year-old sister Ellen had been placing silverware before Betty's entrance.
Within minutes, Betty found herself whisked upstairs by her mother, back into her old bedroom with its homey painted iron bedstead and crocheted spread, the old chromos from her youth still pinned upon the wall to brighten the somber brown-sprigged wallpaper. The big steel alarm clock still sat on the walnut night table, ticking loudly, and Betty was astonished to realize that it was only one o'clock; it seemed as if almost all the day had already gone.
"Now," Clare said briskly before she could make a move, "I think you ought to lie down for a short nap before dinner. We aren't eating until four when Grandmother and Great-Aunt Beatrice get here, so it's a perfect opportunity."
"Mother, I just arrived!" Betty protested. "I want to talk with everyoneand Davey's waiting for his presents!"
Clare took her by the shoulders. "No 'buts,' sweetheart. You look so worn out. What have they been doing to you in Pittsburgh? Go onwash your face, then lie down here and have a nap. Davey's had his gifts from Santa Claus and he'll keep, and so will the rest of us. Your father's giving Horace free rein with the Bugle tomorrow to be able to spend more time with you, and if this is our typical Christmas we'll be up until all hours, so you'll have plenty of time to talk. You'll still be here until Sunday morning?"
Betty nodded mutely, knowing she had run into the proverbial "immovable object." "Yes, Mother."
"Then have a nice nap. I'll call you in about an hour."
After Betty had undressed before the hot air register in the bathroom, climbed back into her pajamas, and washed the dried cold cream from her face, she had to admit that her mother was right: she was exhausted, not just from the day's adventures but from weeks of late nights writing extra scripts so she could have Christmas with her family. Still, she spent a few minutes wandering the upper story, running her fingers over familiar objects: the intricate ironwork of the old gas jets now converted to electricity, the scar upon George's door that she had made throwing a mechanical bank at him during one of their quarrels, the hall wallpaper with its tiny rose print that she had helped Dad and Uncle Rick put up that summer before she left for college, finally the bright red spines of the bound St. Nicholas magazines in the bookshelves of her room.
Finally she lay down and fell deeply asleep.
Clare Roberts allowed Betty to sleep almost two hours before reluctantly sending Patricia up to fetch her. It took the sisters many minutes to get downstairs as they began chatting immediately, Patty about the upcoming arrival and Tim, Betty about the big city, her odd co-workers, her plane flight.
To assuage Davey's desire to open gifts, they ate later than intended, after David Roberts' mother and her sister had arrived, the presents stripped of their tissue-paper wrapping and string, opened with joyous abandon. No sooner were all the gifts distributed and admired than dinner was served, the fourteen of them elbow-to-elbow around the long dining room table. The meal was a whirl of color and delightful odors and even more delightful chatter over bowls of steaming butternut squash and onions and green beans, potatoes bursting from their brown skins and drenched in fresh butter, plates of turkey and dressing moist with gravy, pumpkin and rhubarb pies, applesauce cake, cups of coffee and big glasses of milk for the children, warmth, camaraderie. Betty, seated between Tim's high chair and her Uncle George, watched the toddler mash his dinner with abandon while eating the good country food with an appetite that surprised her.
But by far the best part of Christmas at home came after dinner; the family, from Great-Aunt Beatrice, who had just turned eighty, to little Davey, gathered around the piano in the parlor. Patricia plumped Tim into his father's arms and sat down at the bench, flexing her fingers, and began to play the old carols as they sang along. If Betty closed her eyes, deeply breathing in the scents of the fire, the fir tree that stood in the front window seemingly dancing as the tinsel wavered in the air currents from the furnace, Mother's lemon verbena perfume, and Dad's aftershave, she could almost imagine she were a child again.
They had not yet finished singing when friends dropped over, schoolmates of Betty's who could not wait until Saturday night's get-together to see her. Sally Conway, now Sally Menninger, surprised Betty by walking in on her new husband's arm looking enormously expectant; Rachel Dodds carried her three-year-old daughter Emily on her hip; and Martha Phillips waltzed in flashing a pearl-and-diamond chip engagement ring and continued to chatter about "my Dan" for the next hour. Betty found herself perched in one of the big wing-back armchairs "holding court" with Emily bouncing on her lap, as the tiny blond child was beaming and happy, dressed in a frilled green-sprigged dress with a red velvet top and red lace trim at the hem, her feet in tiny Mary Janes merrily thumping Betty's leg. As she sat talking, however, she was ever conscious of her father standing off to one side, ostensibly speaking with his brother, but his attention drawn to her.
At a time her mother would call "all hours of the night," but was really not much after ten, people began filtering homeindeed Tim was already asleep and ready to be taken home, Davey had been put to bed in a cot they kept just for his visits, and Grandma was nodding off in the other wing-back chair beside the fire. Betty was kissed and hugged goodbye, even by people who would inevitably be at the house for the next three days. After her friends, Patty and her family, and Grandma and Great-Aunt Beatrice had left, she was still restless. One by one, the rest of the family had climbed up to bed, and Mother had already gone upstairs to take her bath. Oddly, her dad had disappeared, although he usually stayed up later than the rest of the family.
Betty thought she might find something to do in the kitchen, but her mother, grandmother, and Patty had made short work of the dishes while she spoke with her friends and the dining room table had returned to its pristine state. She ended up busying herself picking up stray scraps of wrapping paper, tidying the bouquet of bittersweet and pine on the dining room table, smoothing the fluttered tinsel back in place.
Her mother, wrapped in her nightgown and bathrobe, padded back down the stairs, worried. "Betty, you should be getting ready for bed."
How could she explain that she was no longer used to the quiet, that she was often busy until midnight and missed it? "I suppose, Mother, but I'm really not tired any more."
"A nice hot bath will take care of that," Clare said firmly, and once again she led her daughter upstairs to where she had already been running the water in the tub. In a few minutes Betty lay luxuriating in the hot water, trying to soothe herself, but at the same time she was angry. Here she was, over a year out of Elkhart, and still her mother was fussing over her as if she were ten years old! Worse, she had gotten the impression from snippets of conversation she had heard tonight, in combination with some of her mother's recent letters, that Clare expected her to get writing for radio and a career in Pittsburgh "out of her system" and eventually come homeor at least "settle down" somewhere as a housekeeper and mother.
But she did want that, she knew, somewhere deep inside her someone to love, a place to live other than one room at the Barbicanbut not at the price of giving up writing and the other things she loved.
Including one struggling radio station in Pittsburgh.
Warm and refreshed in a flannel nightgown and quilted bathrobe she had borrowed from her elder sisterthe things in her satchel and her clothing, she found, smelled of aviation fuel and needed airingshe defiantly decided she was not yet sleepy. Instead, Betty plucked a volume of St. Nicholas from the bookshelf in her room and padded back downstairs, careful not to make any noise as she passed her parents' room. She would go back downstairs and read by the light of the Christmas tree, which had always been one of her favorite things to do.
"Hi, chickadee," said David Roberts as she stepped into the parlor. He was seated with his head leaned back in the armchair to the right of the fireplace, having left the one closer to the Christmas tree open for her, and she smiled at him.
"Expecting me, Dad?"
"I didn't think working in Pittsburgh had made you any less of a night owl," he said softly. "I'm afraid your mother never worked that magic on either of us."
Betty placed her book in the second chair, but instead of sitting there herself she perched on the left arm of her father's chair, placing a gentle kiss on his forehead. His dark hair, she noticed, once so thick, was thinning in front, with noticeable strands of grey both there and in his beard. "We must be a great trial to Mother. At least I know I certainly am."
"As with all mothers, she only wants what she thinks is best for you."
"I know that...DadI loved growing up here. It was the most wonderful place on earth. I still write about it now. And I don't...it's not that I think any less of Elkhart. I don't consider it...'a hick town' or something like that. I just...I just don't belong here any longer."
He sighed quietly. "I know, chickadee."
"But Mother doesn't understand." She looked down at him in resignation. "Dad, were you terribly disappointed...well, that I was the one who took after you and not George?"
He cocked his head up at her. "I never thought of that. Should I have been disappointed because one of my daughters is the writer in the family instead of my only son? Bettydo I seem that much of an old fogey lately?"
"Oh, Dad...no," she returned firmly. "But I think sometimes Mother feels that way. How on earth do you two get alongyou're both so different!"
David Roberts laughed. "We're a lot alike down deep where it counts. Makes it a lot more interesting."
She stared thoughtfully into the now dark fireplace. "Does that mean you shouldn't marry someone who has a lot in common with you? I thought the goal was 'compatible.'"
His gaze followed hers and he was silent for a few moments. "Compatible isn't the same as 'a lot in common.' Certainly with the basic goals of your life you should have something in common with the person you marry: whether you want children, where you want to live, how you want to live. Disagreements on those can drive a couple apart. But be exactly alike?like all the same foods and books and picture shows? Think all the same thoughts? You'd feel smothered in a moment."
Betty let out a sigh, turning her attention to the tree. "Is that from our woodlot?"
"What?" he asked, as if preoccupied.
"The Christmas tree. Is it from our woodlot or did you get it in town?"
"From our lot. George went out and cut it from that stand of trees we planted when you and Patty were small." He paused. "Chickadee, mind if I ask you a question?"
"What's bothering you, Dad?" Betty asked curiously.
"This Scott Sherwood fellow-" he began, and when she blinked at him in incomprehension, he added, "Well, face it, sweetie, management doesn't usually bargain to get you home to your family on Christmas Day and buy you a bus ticket back in the bargain."
Betty started to laugh aloud, thought of her mother, and smothered most of it; what sounded like a sputter was all that remained. "Oh, Dad..."
She giggled, quietly, helplessly, for a several more seconds, then finally managed, "Dad, I don't know why Mr. Sherwood did what he did. Maybe Gertie and Mr. Eldridge talked him into itas much as he drives us crazy, he always has great respect for them. Maybe he has a grandmother he's really fond of, I don't know- "
She took a breath, continued. "I almost left WENN when he showed upI had my letter of resignation written and I had given it to him, but...things changed. At first it seemed all he wanted to do was cheat everyone. I couldn't even begin to imagine why Victor had chosen him to take his place. He was loud and obnoxious and didn't seem to care about anyone or anything." She looked thoughtful. "I don't think he ever has. In a way it seemed kind of sad. Most of it is egobut sometimes I think the rest is a little bit of a shell he puts around himself, so the real Scott Sherwood won't show through. It's funny, thoughhe has changed, and for the better. It's not something that shows right out. Sometimes he can still be the most infuriating, callow person I've ever known...then other times-"
She talked for almost a half hour, about Victor's death and Scott's efforts to keep sponsors after her wits deserted her, about his foray on the window ledge during their one "Newsday Wennsday," about half a dozen other things that came to mind that showed he was thinking about the success of the station rather than himselfplus his friendship with Maple LaMarsh. Her mother, she knew, would be horrified of Maple, who embodied all the girls Betty had been warned not to associate with. But she had already learned not to see Maple at face value; underneath the brass and the flash and the ways of the world there was a girl like her, and she knew if Maple valued Scott Sherwood, there must be something to valuesomewhere.
When she finished, her father gave a little sigh and reached up to brush her hair back. She wondered if he would ask anything more, but he merely said, "You know, if your mother wakes up and finds me out of bed, she'll probably come looking for me. She's used to me being a night wanderer, but I think she'd be a little harder on you."
She slid from the arm of the chair and he stood up, returning the kiss on the forehead she had given him earlier. "I'll go up and keep her occupied."
"Dad!" Betty said with scandal in her voice and he laughed. "Now who's jumping to conclusions, chickadee? Good night. Don't stay up too late. Your mother has an entire itinerary planned until you leave on Sunday morning."
"So I've heard. Night, Daddy."
When he had left, she settled into the chair next to the Christmas tree, opening the St. Nicholas at randomand smiled wryly as she looked down at an article about the island of Samoa.
"Ever try to eat a barnacle?" "No." "Don't." "I promise not to."
The eight-day clock on the mantel began to chime the hour. Twelve strokes. Christmas Day was over.
And instead of reading she sat gazing into the light from the Christmas tree for a long time.
* * * * *He was sitting with his stocking feet propped up on a worn leather ottoman, gazing into the light from the radio.
The two interns from the Aldwych Academy of Drama had taken the night shift and now Gus Kahana was just finishing reading the adaptation of A Christmas Carol that was scheduled for A Book at Bedtime, doing his best Lionel Barrymore imitation.
"...he had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!"
There was a pause, then Enid Fairleigh's precise, light voice concluded the production. "That was A Book at Bedtime's presentation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, adapted for radio by Betty Roberts. The time is midnight. WENN now ends its broadcasting day. Good nightand Merry Christmas."
He sat through the silence that followed, then slowly rose from the creaking leather chair to shut off the radio as static claimed its place. He glanced around the furnished apartment where he had spent most of Christmas day, reading the newspaper and eating his "late supper" of Chinese takeout, then switched off the lamp next to the chair. He'd forgotten to leave a light in the bedroom and the room was plunged into darkness. No matter. He'd made it to many beds in the dark too many times.
When his eyes had adjusted, instead of heading for the bedroom, he walked to the front window that overlooked the street. Outside the streetlights made pools of brightness in which snowflakes whirled and spun, dancing in the sharply cold breeze. It made him think of country lanes, and sleigh rides, and big white houses covered in garlands and red velvet bows, and a dark haired woman standing before a Christmas tree, the glow of electric bulbs reflected in her eyes.
He smiled to himself. "Merry Christmas, Betty Roberts."
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