Past Nine O'Clock
A Remember WENN story
by Linda M. Young

November 26, 1930

      Betty Roberts leaned her bicycle against the brick wall of the newspaper office, then peered inside the big front window, hunching her shoulders against the chill wind.
       Her father was indeed still at his desk, pooled in the light of a 40-watt lightbulb, his chin resting on his fist as he read copy and occasionally crossed out and corrected items. The remainder of the cavernous front room of the newspaper office was dark.
       She didn't need the face of the shadowed clock in the far corner to tell her it was now after 9:30 p.m.
       The door to the Elkhart Bugle creaked as she pushed it open. As everything else in the past thirteen months, it had been allowed to go a little downhill: the floor hadn't seen polishing for months, the glass-fronted cases that held the newspaper's awards and memorabilia were dusty, and there was still a blank, cobwebbed space where the new press had stood only months before.
       It had nearly killed Dad to send back that press, but there had been no help for it; he couldn't afford to pay for it.
       "Dad?" she said. His pen was still scratching as if he hadn't heard the door open.
       He lifted his head then, pulling off his glasses and rubbing his eyes. Even in the wan light of the one desk lamp he looked exhausted. "What are you doing out so late, chickadee?"
       "Mother was fretting, so I thought I'd better come see when you were coming home. She's telephoned three times."
       "All that does is keep me from finishing," he said with uncharacteristic testiness. "I still have at least an hour's worth of work to do. Then I can think about coming home."
       "Dad, tomorrow's Thanksgiving. I'm out of school on Friday; I'll come help you then. We'll start early. But for now come home."
       He laid down his pen, regarding her gently as she traversed the cluttered office area to his desk. She was a month past her fifteenth birthday, wearing a checked coat already grown short for her tall frame, a hand-knitted cap partially covering her dark hair, last year's woolen gloves tight on her slim hands. Despite regular polishing, her trim shoes were worn and even in that insufficient light the double darns in her cotton stockings were visible. Her mother was a superb seamstress but even she couldn't make much of material almost past darning.
       "If I don't figure a way to get more advertisers," he said tiredly, "there won't be much to give thanks for."
       Without speaking Betty removed her hat, then her coat, laying them neatly on the wooden chair beside his desk. In her red corduroy jumper and white blouse, topped with a buttoned brown cardigan, she still shivered. "Dad, aren't you using the heater at all?"
       "I figured I'd save the coal for Friday," he admitted. "Silly to use it when there's no one but me here. I'm warm enough."
       That was debatable, she thought. His long fingers looked like pale sticks and he was wearing a knitted vest over a blue flannel shirt, that over the long woolen underwear Mother insisted on.
       She perched herself on the edge of the chair. "Dad, you need to let me help you more. Let me come in after school as well as on Saturdays, please. I can do more than write those society page stories."
       "I don't want it to interfere with your schoolwork," he protested.
       "I can do homework after supper," she coaxed. "I'll come right over when school lets out and stay until six and we can walk home together."
       "And what about the writing club?"
       She laughed and just tossed her hair. "Oh, Dad, I've been thinking of quitting that anyway. All they do is write baby stuff. Essays about flowers and trees, the stars, flags flying, all that." She leaned forward, an eager sparkle in her eyes. "This is real. Please, Dad."
       She had talked all summer about being in Elkhart High's celebrated writing club; in the past they had won prizes at state competitions. And somehow she could tell by the way he smiled wistfully at her that he desperately wished she could still concentrate on flowers and trees, stars, and flags flying.
       Then she said, tentatively, "Or I could quit school-"
       "No!" And there was unaccustomed thunder in his voice.
       "Pat has already graduated. What she's doing with Mrs. Morris is helping out quite a bit. I'll work 20 hours a day and all day Sunday if it keeps you and George in school."
       Betty suppressed a shudder thinking of her sister working every day with the town dressmaker, whose business these days seemed to consist more of mending things to last than creating new clothing. Pat brought small projects home with her every other night. But then Patty liked to sew...
       "You're already working most of the day Sunday," she protested. "At home, and as much as Mother allows. Dad—at least let me give you my college fund. You could have kept the new press if you'd taken it earlier."
       "No," he repeated, but this time the voice was weary. "Besides, all we would have done was lost the money. I couldn't have kept the payments up."
       She sagged backward in the chair. "Then use it for the coal bill. Or to buy paper for the press."
       "Chickadee," he sighed, "it's not such a lot of money. It's barely enough for the state college, despite how little that costs. You'll still need a part-time job to pay for textbooks and any fees. I know how much you want to go to college." And then he added, more reluctantly, "And, to be honest, I was saving it—in case things got worse."
       Her eyes flashed to meet his wordlessly, but knew what he said was true. Things could get worse. Right now the house was warm, they had food, they had clothing. Already some of their farming neighbors were struggling. Her best friend's father was worrying how he would pay their mortgage note come spring. And Mother had invited their neighbors, the Hills, to dinner; she'd overheard her parents discussing the fact that Mr. Hill's last rental payment on the land he farmed for them had been paid in paper and coin rather than by check, as if the Hills had pulled out stored funds to meet the fee.
       She saw him glance back to his papers longingly, so she rose from her chair. "I'll let you finish, Dad. I'll tell Mother you'll try to be home about eleven."
       As she pulled on her coat, he reached under his desk, sliding out a crate in which several paper- wrapped items were stored. "Think you can manage to get these in your bicycle basket? I was going to carry them home myself, but since I'll be so late your mother might like to have them now."
       She opened her arms for the largest package, puzzled, tensing her shoulders to receive it although it was not that heavy. "Dad?"
       "Jim Hoskins came past here about an hour ago. He barely sold a third of his turkeys at market last weekend and those at a loss. To make some extra money he had Lydia dress some out and was peddling them around town all day. I couldn't let him leave without taking one. He was almost desperate enough to start selling them at a penny a pound."
       She scarcely heard his words. "Oh, Dad! That will be perfect! Mother was just going to kill a couple of the older layers. Turkey will be so much nicer than chicken stew, especially with the Hills coming." When he laid two other packages on top of the first, her eyes danced in wonder. He shrugged. "I had a couple of dollars hoarded and cranberries and yams were cheap enough. God knows Fred could use the business."
       "I'll fit it in my basket," she said with a grin. "Mother will love it."
       "And-" He glanced at the floor, then smiled at her. "If you come in Monday after school, we'll see what we can set up. But the moment your grades start to slip, you're off the payroll, understand?"
       "Yes, sir."
       "This won't be for fun, chickadee."
       "I know, Dad." She swallowed. She'd talk to Miss Miller on Monday morning about dropping out of the Writing Club. Miss Miller would understand—already several of her students, mostly boys, had left to help on the farm after school.
       He turned back to his work, and she walked backward to the door, watching him, noticing again the empty space where the press had been, the cold heater, the lone desk lamp bathing him in a pool of yellow light.
       "I had a couple of dollars hoarded..." he'd said.
       "Dad, what time is it?"
       She saw him raise his hand automatically, then his eyes shifted to the wall clock, buried too deep in the corner for the light to penetrate. "Can't tell. Why?"
       "Dad, where's your watch?" she asked gently.
       Their eyes met, but he merely said, "Your mother must be getting worried, Bets. I'll phone her and tell her you're on your way."
       Dad's gold pocket watch had been left to him in 1918, when his father died. She wanted to say something, but it would only embarrass him if she made a fuss. "Don't stay too late, Dad."
       "I won't."
       She knew he'd stay until the job was finished, no matter what time it was, even the wee hours of the morning, which she suspected it would be.
       Once outside, she realized the turkey would be awkward to get home; it barely fit in her bicycle basket and she was forced to stuff the cranberries in one big pocket of her coat, the yams in the other. She'd have to go slowly so as to not upset the load.
       But then that sounded like good advice for the days ahead, too.
       She glanced once more into the window, at her father bent over his desk.
       "Happy Thanksgiving, Dad," she whispered and set out for home.

Return to Linda's Remember WENN Fanfiction Page