A Remember WENN story
by Linda M. Young
Seven in the morning and those jokers down the street were already pitching pennies.
Scott Sherwood slowed to watch as Bernie Milliken made a careful shot, but his penny thunked too solidly against the wooden steps of the stoop and toppled an inch further away than the closest coin. Bernie cursed, but a scruffy, elderly newcomer
the guys called him Doc incongruous in a dignified if threadbare bowler hat worn with a sleeveless undershirt and rusty pants held up with one suspender, emitted a cheer and swept up the pennies at the foot of the stairs that led up to the scruffy brownstone catercorner from Scott's rooming house. Some of the younger members of the crowd, boys still in soft caps, their hands habitually stuck in their knickers' pockets, roused themselves to clamor over the next turn.
"Want a turn, Sherwood?" Pop Duffy called as he skirted the six men.
"The fancy ray-deee-owe star, Pop?" one of the boys laughed. "He won't play with us."
Scott, in the most lightweight shirt he owned, tie undone and collar open, stopped, grinned, but glanced judiciously at his watch first. He had a bit of time if he picked up his pace and didn't stop for breakfast at the Buttery first. There was a good chance that Eugenia had brought in doughnuts anyway. But Betty would have nothing but scorn if he were late again.
Right now he didn't want to think of Betty and the sniggering youngster annoyed him. "Why not, boys?" he said, unexpectedly. "I'll give it a try."
Tossing his suit jacket at the now startled young man to hold, he flipped a cent from his trouser pocket and joined six of "the boys" for several short games. After the first they were more wary of him; he had a way of flipping the coin so it struck the lip of the step gently and then slid down, coming to rest directly next to the riser. He won six games out of seven, then, consulting his watch, bid them a good day, to their evident relief.
He walked that morning, not only because it saved him the nickel fare, but because he knew even with its wide-open windows the trolley would be a smothering, claustrophobic nightmare of warm bodies in the early July heat. Even at this early hour the humid air was thickly uncomfortable, making the perpetual Pittsburgh coal smut worse. To add insult to discomfort, where he turned the corner from Sandusky onto Isabella, the radio store there had already opened for business. The proprietor had the awning cranked opened and the door wide open with an inadequate fan pulling whatever cool air it could into the shop, and the radio nearest the door had been turned on. Scott was tempted to punch out whoever ran the station that was playing a jaunty jazz version of "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight." He could make an educated guess, however: those idiots at WEEP.
He'd cut it much too close, but by mounting the steps two at a time and sliding into the studio with his cup of Ingrams and one of Eugenia's landlady's homemade doughnuts, he was early enough to earn a raised eyebrow from Mackie and a grin from the genial organist.
Hilary, on the other hand, had her gaze fixed on her microphone and her script, eyes so downcast that he couldn't make out if she had covered yet another sleepless night so skillfully with makeup that no one who did not know her would have guessed Miss Booth was not at her best.
"'Morning, Hildy," he said cheerfully.
She cast a quick, icy glare at him, but no sharp reply was forthcoming. He shrugged at Mr. Foley, who widened his dark eyes in sympathy and shrugged in return.
The second hand swept over the twelve and Eugenia promptly opened with the Bedside Manor theme, followed by Mackie doing a commercial for Ingrams Coffee. As the first strains of music were broadcast to greater Pittsburgh, Scott saw Betty enter the control room with some papers she handed to C.J.. She glanced up but, when he gave her an encouraging grin, she abruptly turned away and left the room. He dropped his eyes back to his script, chagrined, and only a sharp "Ah, our inconsiderate gardener is tardy yet again," from Hilary reminded him of his cue.
Lately his life was a bit like those pennies he'd pitched this morning. Two months ago, all his coins had been head's up and hugging the riser. He'd caught a spy in the halls of WENN, corrected a long-standing misunderstanding with his favorite aunt, and the most beautiful and intelligent girl in the world was, if his interpretation of a certain good night kiss were not mistaken, starting to become rather fond of him. Then, like Bernie's bounce shot, it had all landed tails up: first Betty became distant with him, then Rollie Pruitt had shown up to expose everything and finish the job.
There were still days when things worked out. They'd banded together to save the station from Miss Cosgrave's absurd dual-broadcast scheme, convinced Betty that they needed her at WENN
and then Pavla Nemkova had come roaring through WENN like some brutal hurricane, leaving Hilary withdrawn and the remainder of the cast bruised. Betty's initial upset with the situation was evident: as at other times, her subconscious leaked into her scripts, and marital troubles had infected every word. It had taken a quiet word from Maple before it ended.
He fixed his mind on the script in front of him and for the next few hours buried himself in his work. At eleven thirty, while Hilary was hosting Lunch with Hilary Booth, he slipped into the Green Room. The air seemed cooler there, at least, even if it was unnaturally quiet: Maple was sipping a cup of water from the rapidly emptying water cooler while reading a fashion magazine and Mackie was leaned back next to her contemplatively smoking a cigar. It was too warm for coffee, but he figured it was preferable to tepid water, so he poured himself a cup, added sugar, and then stood leaning against the counter, his eyes faraway.
"Penny for your thoughts, Scotty," Maple said lazily.
"Thoughts? It's too hot to think," he answered.
Hilary's voice, animatedly reciting a recipe for baked salmon, became a pleasant drone in the background. Presently Betty entered, starting when she saw Scott, and moved to turn around.
"Sit down, kiddoo," Mackie advised. "You've been working in that sweatbox all morning."
"I really could use a break," she confessed, drawing her hand across her damp forehead.
"Need a hanky?" Maple asked, and before Betty could reply, Scott had roused from his torpor and was offering her his instead.
She looked as if she might want to refuse, but considered her audience and took the square of white cloth with a murmured thank you, patting her face and neck dry, then returning it to him. He folded it, placed it in his pocket. "Cup of coffee, Betty?" he asked neutrally.
"What I want is lemonade," she said with a sigh, collapsing in a chair at the table.
"Yeah," Maple smiled blissfully, "nice ice-cold lemonade or something from the Hokey Pokey man."
"The what?" Betty asked in surprise.
"You know," the redhead explained, "ice cream. From one of those little street carts."
"Oh," Betty said, still not really understanding. "Mother made our ice cream, or we could get it at the soda fountain."
Scott now slid into one of the chairs, careful to keep his distance. "How about a lemon phosphate?"
"Not on your life," Maple answered, making a face. "A big cherry Coke."
"Ooooh," Eugenia said as she entered, dabbing at her forehead with her handkerchief. "I haven't had a cherry Coke in years. Just imagine a nice tall glass, filled with ice- "
"Oh, please stop," Mackie protested, "you're making me warmer."
"If this is the beginning of July," Betty said, exhausted, "what will August be like?"
Eugenia, selecting a doughnut from the collection still on the counter, beckoned to her friends. "Everyone have another doughnut
please. It would be a shame to throw them away."
"Gee, Eugenia," offered Maple, "I've already had two. I'm gonna lose my girlish figure. Your landlady's sweet, but why does she make so many already?"
As she debated coffee, Eugenia responded, "Poor Mrs. Lacey. She just doesn't know what to do with herself anymore. Her last two children just left home. Her daughter Alicia got married in June and moved to Niagara Falls. Her husband
oh, a lovely man! has a job in the big power plant up there. Doesn't that sound romantic? a honeymoon location all year round! And now Harold that's her youngest boy has moved to California. He's a telegrapher, you know. But Mrs. Lacey is so used to cooking all these big meals she doesn't know how to act anymore. She still bakes too much and gives the rest to me or Mrs. Shapiro downstairs."
"You tell her thank you for us, Eugenia," Betty said warmly. "It's a lot of work frying doughnuts in hot weather like this."
Eugenia settled down with her coffee and the doughnut. "I wanted to ask you, Betty, if I need to warm up my fingers for Friday. Are we doing another Independence Day concert? I have some lovely new marching music!"
"Oh, no," was the response, and to Scott's surprise, Betty's expression grew a little harried. "Actually, I was about to tell folks to take the afternoon off. We have a telephone hookup to WWOR scheduled for noon, their big Fourth of July concert. Then we'll be broadcasting the Pirates game at two- thirty. C.J.'s bringing a couple of his nephews with him to Forbes Field while he broadcasts the game for us
the boys are so thrilled at being able to attend a real baseball game that he doesn't mind working the holiday. So the rest of us will be free from noon probably until five perhaps even six."
"Wow." Maple breathed.
"Darn, we will have missed the parade downtown," Eugenia mourned.
"There is the civic ceremony after the parade," reminded Betty. She propped her elbow on the table, resting her chin on her fist, smiling reminiscently. "We'd always go to the parade when I was a little girl, and then there would be a reading of the Declaration of Independence in the park square. For a long time Elkhart attracted mayors with wonderful voices, so it would be a treat rather than someone droning away from a book. Afterwards we'd go down to the lake and have a picnic. Mother-"
"What a great idea, Betty!" Scott exclaimed, seeing the light in her eyes.
She was startled. "Reading the Declaration of Independence?"
"Naw, a picnic. It'll be a real pick-me-up." He grinned at his little joke.
"Picnic. In sooty, smothery downtown Pittsburgh?" she asked in disbelief.
"That's a great idea," Maple exclaimed.
"A picnic? With the ants, flies, and assorted other wildlife?" Mackie pointed out.
"Geez, don't be such a wet blanket, Mackie!" protested Maple, discarding her magazine.
Eugenia's eyes widened. "Oh, my! We don't have to have a picnic here in the city. I know just the place! It's a little park just south of Monroeville. They have a lake, lots of trees
I'm sure there will be a breeze." She fanned herself with a discarded magazine. "Just the breeze alone will be lovely. And the trolley goes right there. It shouldn't take us a half hour."
Maple, excited now, sat forward. "Yeah, and we can get some sandwiches and sodas before we go. The Buttery will be open, and the drugstore for the sodas..."
"Even better, Maple," the organist proposed enthusiastically, "I can ask Mrs. Lacey to whip up something for us. We can chip in together and I'll give her the money to make us a picnic lunch."
Scott grinned, fished in his trouser pocket, and pulled out change, counting out a quarter, two dimes, four nickels, and thirty-five pennies. "There's my grubstake, Eugenia. C'mon, Betty," for she showed reluctance in every inch of her face. "We'll keep an eye on our watches and get back in plenty of time. If not C.J. can put an archive disk or two on. It's worked before, remember?"
She sighed, a wistful expression on her face. "I suppose."
Maple had already spilled some change on the table and Mackie was pulling a creased dollar from his wallet. Eugenia spread out her lace-edged handkerchief and began collecting the coins and paper into it. "What about it, Betty?" she coaxed.
"Shouldn't you be counting notes, dear, instead of change?" Hilary asked sharply as she entered the Green Room. "Our listeners aren't listening to anything but dead air right now."
"Oh, goodness!" Eugenia said, thrusting the handkerchief toward Betty and vanishing. Mackie rose more leisurely, polished his glasses, and said evenly out, "Don't you think that all the times we've covered for you, Miss Booth, you might show us the same courtesy?"
"Do you seriously expect an answer to that?" Hilary asked icily.
Mackie snorted, "Yes. Silly me," and followed Eugenia.
"So what is this impromptu collection for?" Hilary asked offhandedly. "Financing Maple's new wardrobe, are we? I'm sure there's a wonderful sale at Woolworth's."
Maple made a face at her, but Betty interposed, "We have some free time on Friday, Hilary, so we're planning a picnic at a little park Eugenia knows of. We're getting money together in hopes that her landlady will make us a picnic lunch. Everyone's been putting in a dollar. How about you?"
"A picnic? Out in the woods? Me in the woods? Please, Betty- " and Hilary laughed stingingly. "I hate the country
no offense, dear and I've never had any desire to go there."
"You grew up there," Betty retorted. "You chased fireflies and waded in a brook. You said so yourself once."
Hilary waved her off. "What you do as a child has no bearing on what you do as an adult. As an adult I have never wanted to go to the country. Is that pedantic enough for you, Betty?"
"Well, then the rest of us will go and have a nice time," the writer responded, an edge creeping into her voice.
"And I'll go shopping." Hilary said airily.
Betty paused for a parting shot, "The stores are closed on Friday. It's Independence Day, remember?" before leaving the Green Room with the carefully collected money.
Maple stood up. "Y'know, Hilary, I don't know what you did as a child, but maybe once your mother should have sent you to bed without your supper. Maybe y'woulda learned some manners." And she too left the room as Scott stood up, his left fist clenched.
"And you, Scotty?" Hilary asked, her face a mask. "Nothing to say?"
She evidently expected his own patented smart remark, for her face paled as he said evenly, "A couple of weeks ago everyone at this station
your friends stood behind you, Hildy. The least you could do was treat them decently."
"And you're such an expert on dealing with friends, Mr. Sherwood?" she retorted, knowing it would sting.
His mind worked, thinking of all types of responses. But he simply said quietly, "No, I'm the last person you'd want to ask. Just do yourself a favor
don't make the same mistake I did."
When she didn't respond, he too started to walk out, then he wheeled just before opening the door, asking bluntly, "You gonna let that bitch get the better of you, Hildy?"
Hilary's averted eyes flashed open in such astonishment that he laughed aloud. "Shocked by my language? I know you're not that naïve. As if you haven't called Pablo that at least once a day since she showed up? So?" He paused. "My question still stands."
For a moment her face lost its supercilious mask and her eyes betrayed the pain within. Her voice was almost inaudible. "If she has Jeffrey she's already won, hasn't she?"
"I'd say that was up to you," he retorted.
And then he too left her alone to stare silently into her cup of coffee.
* * * * *"Holy cow, Eugenia!" Scott could hear Maple exclaim as he opened the station door. "Didja tell her we were the Army Air Corps?"
"I have to admit, I was a bit overwhelmed myself," Eugenia confessed. "I had to take a taxi to get this all here."
He was also taken aback as he entered. Gertie was off for the holiday, so piled on every free surface of her desk and in three of the chairs, were various forms of picnic baskets: two the traditional square, woven type, two round ones, and four other large baskets that had been pressed into service, all covered with red or blue checked napkins. On another chair were tossed darned and patched blankets for use on the grass, and still another held a big glass jug of lemonade. Across the room, Maple, Eugenia, and Betty were regarding the largess with awe.
Mr. Foley emerged from the studio, a script in hand, evidently preparing to address Betty. Seeing the baskets everywhere, he halted dead in his tracks, started to say something, closed his mouth, opened it again, then just sighed in amaze and shook his head.
"Well, that's done it, Eugenia," Scott said with a grin. "You've even rendered Mr. Foley speechless! What is all this?"
"I told Mrs. Lacey we wanted a nice picnic for the Fourth," Eugenia confessed, "and this is what she came up with." She indicated each basket as she spoke. "That one is baked chicken and the other is ham. This round one is potato salad and the other is a big loaf of homemade bread. Then we have utensils and paper cups in that one, cole slaw and buttered beans in the next, potato chips and popcorn there, and in this," and she indicated the last basket with reverence, "is an angel food cake and fresh strawberries."
"Oh, stop," Betty pleaded. "I've had breakfast and you're still making me hungry."
Scott said ruefully, "Not to mention those of us who haven't had breakfast."
"Oh," Eugenia added brightly, "and there are more doughnuts in the Green Room."
The door opened and Hilary entered. To their surprise, she was wearing, for Hilary, a subdued frock, pale cream with a small blue floral motif, with matching low-heeled shoes and a big picture hat tied with a broad blue ribbon that made Betty's and Maple's relaxed, gingham-print summer dresses seem dowdy by comparison. As she took her turn regarding the food with surprise, two boys, looking to be about eight and eleven, came racing from of the Green Room, the older chasing the younger. Scott collared them both before they skidded headlong into the woman.
"Now wait a moment," Hilary said with a sniff, "I understood this picnic was for staff members only. I wasn't aware we were escorting half of Mr....what is his name again? The gentleman with the school? His orphans...on our picnic?"
"We're not orphans!" the younger boy scowled, trying to squirm away from Scott. His face looked vaguely familiar, a belief confirmed by C.J.'s appearance from the control room. "Willie! Phil!"
The boys stopped struggling and Scott obligingly loosed his grip on their collars. The older one, shoving his hands into the pockets of his knickers, glared resentfully at him, reminding Scott of himself at that age.
"Sorry, folks," C.J. apologized. "These are my nephews," and he gave the boys a remonstrative glare that made the younger one drop his head and scuff his feet and the older one look abashed, "and these, boys, are the nice people who are making it possible for you to see the Pirates play today. I'd say you owe them an apology."
The boys did so, subdued, and were then herded into the Green Room, their original destination, to stuff themselves on doughnuts, while Hilary scanned the spread of baskets. "Eugenia, be it rude for me to say, but I think your landlady needs professional help."
"She likes to feel needed," Eugenia shrugged.
"Hilary," Maple ventured, "did I hear you right? 'Our' picnic? You're gonna come with us?"
Hilary arched her neck as if insulted. "Does that mean you think I shouldn't come...Mabel? Stay here all day in this stuffy, stultifying station, subsisting on a glass of tepid water and a crust of bread?"
Maple stopped chewing her gum for a moment to glare, so indicative of an upcoming quarrel that Betty interposed hastily, "I'm glad you're coming with us, Hilary. It just wouldn't be the same without you."
"Yeah, it'd be nicer," Maple muttered, sotto voce.
Scott saved the situation by glancing at his watch. "Oh, will you look at the time!"
"Bedside Manor!" Eugenia gasped, vanishing into the studio just as Mackie began to make frantic faces at them through the windows.
* * * * *Since the morning's broadcast ended with a fifteen-minute prerecorded musical tribute accompanying a message from President Roosevelt, they gathered in reception at quarter to twelve. Betty was giving a long string of last minute instructions to C.J., who simply nodded patiently while keeping an eye on Willie and Phil, who were hovering with wolfish eyes over the baskets.
Hilary was the last to stroll from the studio, her compact open as she powdered her nose. Mackie was handing out baskets, reserving any larger ones for himself, Foley, and Scott. He offered one of the smaller ones to Hilary. "Here's yours, Hilary."
She looked him up and down. "I don't carry picnic baskets, Mackie."
"Good," Maple said with a grin, the glint in her eye suggesting she had not yet forgotten their earlier fracas, and instead pushed the blankets into Hilary's arms, "you can carry these, instead."
"I am not," Hilary countered, staring at the worn material distastefully, "a native bearer."
Scott said banteringly, "Everyone has to carry something, Hildy. How about taking the lemonade instead?"
He hefted the big jug with a grunt, Hilary flinched and then began to rearrange the blankets to carry over her arm. "These are fine
Eventually the picnic supplies were parceled out. Betty, having already tied on a wide-brimmed hat, turned for one last time, extending her hand as she began to speak, but before she could say more than his name, C.J. spoke up, "I've got it all under control, Betty. Here," and he grasped the hand and tucked it under Scott's arm, "you go ahead. Have a good time. See you later this afternoon."
Betty blushed and withdrew her hand, her eyes meeting Scott's and then both turned away. "I get the hint, C.J. You and the boys have a swell afternoon."
Hilary insisted on taking the elevator, but rather than crowding into the cramped space, the rest of them descended the stairs to emerge to the hot and humid air, sharp with the metallic scent always present from the foundries. At the corner they formed a crooked line awaiting the trolley: Hilary standing apart nonchalantly attempting to look as if she did not belong with them, and Betty with Eugenia, Mackie, and Mr. Foley forming a buffer between her and Scott, who tried to act as if he didn't notice she had deliberately set herself in that position.
"You okay, Scotty?" Maple asked gently. She was standing behind him with two of the smaller baskets, one on each arm.
"Just weathering a sudden cold front," he said with a wry grin.
"I don't see why she's so upset about what that wet fish Rollie Pruitt found out," the redhead complained. "She was all for that Memorial Fund, just like the rest of us."
"Long story, Mapes," he said carelessly, not wanting to give all of his sins away. "Hey, do me a favor today."
"Soften the Ice Queen up a little?" she replied mischievously.
Scott lowered his voice. "Go easy on Hilary."
He had a sudden impulse to dodge backwards for an outfield maneuver, for her eyes seemed about to pop from her head. "Have you..." and then her voice dropped at the flash of warning he gave her. "...gone crazy with the heat?"
Eugenia partially saved him by exclaimed rapturously, "Look, here's the trolley! Oh, I can't wait until we get there!"
But the approaching rumble of the vehicle did little to dissuade Maple's curiosity, for when he muttered something about Hilary having a hard time, she hissed, "Did you ever think maybe it served her right, the way she treated Jeff sometimes? And she sure doesn't go easy on anyone else! What do you care, anyway?"
As the trolley ground to a halt next to them, he hefted the lemonade jug, twisting his mouth into a wry smile. "Maybe because these days Hildy and I aren't so different after all."
He turned away then and did not see Maple swallow soberly.
Whether by some machination or by accident after bumping into each other while choosing seats, they ended up one behind the other, Scott behind Betty, Maple behind Hilary, Eugenia and Mr. Foley at the very front, Mackie behind all of them with a smug grin on his face as if he had planned the seating arrangements all along. The trolley jerked into motion again.
Eugenia piped up, "I'm so glad it's gotten a little cooler, Mr. Foley, don't you? I've been simply sweltering," and he nodded vigorously, about to add something when Mackie began to heckle the Pirates and their upcoming game. Mr. Foley defended the team, starting a banter back and forth among the men about the players and their shortcomings that lasted some minutes.
If they had somehow been able to hire a trolley all to themselves, it could not have worked out more perfectly. Only five other people shared the vehicle with them, and during the journey through the city streets, several more people did get on and then off at various stops, but once they left the city, the last passenger vacated the trolley and there were no others. The interurban cars coming in the opposite direction, however, were overflowing, people arriving for the various festivities, children with their heads stuck out the open windows, waving miniature flags and calling to each other, adults leaning against the glass as if already tired.
"It looks as if we're the only people heading out into the wilderness, Eugenia dear," Hilary said finally, primping the bow on her hat. "Are you certain we'll find a park when we arrive? Or perhaps it's an Indian camp instead?"
Eugenia flushed. "Oh, no, Hilary, it's quite a lovely little park. Mrs. Shapiro goes there often with her little grandsons. She talks about it all the time."
"Besides," Mackie said, jauntily waving a cigar, "the Indians wouldn't accept us anyway. No reservations."
Maple snatched off her elaborately flowered straw hat and swatted him, then once again when Betty advised with a grin, "You can give him one for me, too, Maple."
"Pity your organ isn't more portable, Eugenia," she added, "or we could have some music."
Mr. Foley's face brightened immediately. He reached into a trouser pocket and pulled out his harmonica, only to be greeted by Hilary's eyes rolling in exasperation. She started to rise, but a firm hand from the rear stopped her. She glared at the perpetrator, only to see Scott using the back of the seat for purchase in order to shift as if to find a more comfortable position. He spared her a casual glance as he joked, "Anything but 'Camptown Races,' okay?"
"Oh, just the thing, Mr. Foley!" Eugenia said with glowing eyes. "Can you play something patriotic?"
Obligingly, the sound effects man played a riff on his mouth organ, then broke into "America the Beautiful." Hilary sat back with a resigned sigh, only to arch her eyebrows and give a sideways glance when Eugenia began singing along. Good naturedly, Betty joined in, then Mackie and Maple, and finally Scott, who surprised them by having an untrained but not unpleasant singing voice.
After three verses, Mr. Foley played "America," and they followed his lead. It was during the second verse that Scott noted a new voice added to the mix. It was slightly throaty with disuse, and he watched Betty gape when she realized it was Hilary, joining in quite unconsciously. She turned to arch eyebrows at Maple and met his mischievous glance instead as he motioned minutely with his head at Hilary.
He caught his breath when she bit her lip, covering a small smile, nodded, then continued singing.
Hilary continued to join in, very quietly, as Mr. Foley drifted into "Columbia the Gem of the Ocean" and finally "God Bless America." Then, breathless, he stopped, mopping his forehead with his handkerchief, to a chorus of "bravos."
"Gee, Hilary," Maple ventured, "I never knew you had such a nice singing voice."
Hilary tossed her a startled glance, as if suspicious of the remark, then collected herself. "Well, of course. I did have the lead in Razzle Dazzle after all. My reviews were quite good. One of the critics actually compared my voice to Jenny Lind. I just have a problem performing with...That Woman."
"Hey, who could blame you?" answered Maple. "That Ruth Geddy is a real argyle."
There was silence for a moment, then Mackie hazarded, "Gargoyle?"
"Yeah," Maple said brightly, "one of those, too. A real witch."
"You have the last four letters correct, anyway," Hilary responded coolly, and Maple laughed, while Eugenia's mouth formed an "O" and she clapped a hand over it when it became clear she was more amused than offended.
"Eugenia, didn't you say that we should watch for a sign that said Monroe Park? It's just gone by," Betty interjected.
"Oh, yes! That's our stop." The organist shifted from shocked to flustered in as easy a movement as shifting pedals on her piano. "Everyone remember their things. We need to get off just ahead."
As they made their way to the front of the car, the motorman turned to them. "You folks planning a picnic at Monroe Park?"
"Yes, sir," Eugenia said anxiously. "That's all right, isn't it?"
"Jim dandy," he said cheerfully. "Wish it was me. Just wanted to tell you if you take the first path down to your right there's a really pretty spot to have a picnic. Leads right down to the lake, trees and everything. I take my gal down there now and again."
He broadly winked at the ladies, but it seemed directed mostly at Betty and Scott bristled within, covering with a loud, "Hey, thanks for the tip, fella."
"Don't mention it," the motorman added as the trolley slowed and stopped.
In fifteen minutes, Scott would have reason to forget his hasty anger. The path the motorman indicated, well-tamed for the first five minutes of the walk, became a narrow gravel track that led down a gentle slope through an increasing number of maple, oak, and chestnut trees. Just as the jug of lemonade felt as if it had tripled its weight during the hike, the path took a sudden downward left turn, the incline so sudden that they had to steady themselves going downhill.
"Oh, my gosh," said Betty suddenly, "I didn't know there was anyplace around here that looked like this."
"Oh, my," Eugenia said, as if in echo.
He was the last to see what those at the head of the line did, an almost picture-perfect little glade, older maple and alder trees surrounding a fairly flat slope that ending in the shoreline of the lake. The area had been opened more in having several trees removed, the stumps whitewashed to keep them from rotting. Blue, yellow, and pink wildflowers dotted the long grass around the trees. It was shady save for dapples of light that darted between the leaves and cool with just a gentle breeze, and the water made a soothing noise as it lapped gently against the rocks and pebbles edging the lake. Somewhere in the trees, songbirds chirped and trilled.
"Wow, this is the sorta thing I always read about in books. Like the lake in a fairy story," Maple breathed.
"With enchanted princesses and brownies," Betty agreed, her eyes alight in pleasure.
"If you ladies don't mind," Scott called, swinging the lemonade jug, "I prefer the kind of brownies you can eat."
"Lakes are for fishing," Mackie added.
Mr. Foley waved his basket in agreement.
"Men are so weak," Maple teased. "Gotta feed them on time or they get cranky."
"Only when they get hungry, Maple?" Hilary responded mildly, arching her neck, and it took them a moment to realize she had made a joke.
"Fellas," Scott said, "I think we've been insulted."
"Look, right now I don't care what they call me as long as it isn't late for dinner," Mackie retorted.
Mr. Foley took matters into his own hands by placing his basket under a tree and beginning to remove, one by one, the blankets neatly folded over Hilary's arm. Scott and Mackie immediately did the same and for a moment a flurry of cloth whipped around them as the men hastily tossed the blankets to the ground and started to shift baskets on top of them.
"Now wait a minute," Betty said sharply. "Stop it!"
She talked in such a tone so seldom that they froze, blinking at her.
"If you starving hordes will hold up a minute," she advised, "we can make this comfortable and quick. Here, Maple, help me with this."
"C'mon, Hilary," Eugenia coaxed cheerfully, "take the other end of that blanket."
Hilary, hastily patting herself into shape after having the blankets bodily removed from her arm, widened her eyes. "Dear Eugenia, I've already played beast of burden. Surely you don't expect me to do manual labor as well."
Maple briefly gazed skyward and made a face, then watched as Hilary spread her handkerchief over one of the painted stumps and sat down primly. Eugenia shrugged, and the three remaining women arranged the blankets next to each other so that the edges overlapped.
"Now," Betty said briskly, turning to Scott first, "hand me the lemonade."
In a few minutes she and Maple had arranged the jug and the baskets in the center of the blankets where they could be accessed by all, finally surveying the work with hands on hips. "There, now that didn't take long, did it, fellas?"
Her remark was rather ruined by Mr. Foley scrabbling in the basket which held the paper cups and then for Scott's hard-carried jug of lemonade, but she only confessed ruefully, "I suppose I could use a drink myself," as she brushed a stray lock of hair from her perspiring forehead.
"Let me get you some," Scott offered, and was heartened when she did not refuse.
In the next few minutes, they took seats on the blankets and Eugenia, appointing herself as unofficial hostess, handed out paper plates and then began to serve the chicken and the ham. Betty, on the other side of the basket holding the silverware, turned to parceling those out and looked surprised to find Scott already doing so.
He grinned at her startled expression. "Sometimes even I'm useful, Betty Roberts."
"Oh, heaven," Maple breathed presently as she carefully bit into a juicy drumstick.
"This potato salad is almost as good as my mother's," Betty admitted.
Mr. Foley, eyes glowing, started to say something, but his mouth was full and he blushed at his bad manners instead.
Scott had snagged himself a seat up against a tree and now leaned back as he stabbed yet another piece of ham with his fork. "This is all right. I don't think I've had a meal like this since I was a kid."
"And I thought her doughnuts were good," Mackie marveled. "Eugenia, honey, we have to dedicate a program to your Mrs. Lacey."
"Program?" Maple laughed. "We ought to dedicate a whole day."
Eugenia had just finished buttering a slice of bread and looked up dreamily. "The food is wonderful. And this is just as lovely as I hoped it would be."
Hilary sat silently on her stump, eating a small portion of chicken and a slice of bread which Betty had earlier served to her. She was trying hard not to make eye contact with anyone, but Scott perversely kept staring at her until she could no longer avoid it. He cleared his throat as he did, purposefully skewering a helping of potatoes.
"You'll have to express our appreciation to your landlady, Eugenia," said Hilary finally. "This food is quite delicious."
"Why, thank you, Hilary," was the wide-eyed response. "I'll be certain to tell Mrs. Lacey. You know, she's quite a fan of your shows, especially Valiant Journey. She's always asking me if I know what's going to happen to Daphne next."
"Heaven forbid we should know before the show," Hilary answered a bit sarcastically, but Betty only laughed. "Sometimes I don't even know myself until that morning."
"I don't know how you keep that all in your head, Betty," Maple marveled.
"Oh, I've always had all sorts of stories running around in my head, from when I was a little girl. I'm used to it."
Scott hazarded, "Sounds a lot like my childhood, too."
Betty gave him a pointed look and answered wryly, "The difference was, Mr. Sherwood, that I put my stories on paper."
It was only then he realized what was happening and a slow grin spread across his face. She was not only speaking to him about something that didn't have to do with station business, but she was answering him back instead of ignoring him. Parrying his words the same way she had when he had first arrived at WENN. Maybe that was a positive sign, one that meant everything wasn't too far gone...
The breeze rose for several minutes, prompting a grabs for napkins and hats, and on it was suddenly carried the merry sound of firecrackers popping.
"Sounds like some kid's having himself a good time," Maple grinned. "Hey, remember sticking firecrackers in people's mailboxes?"
Eugenia turned pale. "Oh, that's dreadful, Maple! What if someone got hurt?"
"Aw, nobody ever did," the redhead assured. "We'd stand around and make sure nobody touched it. Boy, did it make a big repercussion."
"I'm sure," Hilary said dryly, "when your parents found out about it."
Maple gave her an odd look, then shrugged. "My old man always thought that kinda thing was funny."
Betty bit her lip, stifling a laugh. "My mother always hated firecrackers, but my dad didn't mind unless we were careless with them. Then one year my brother George jumped the gun and put a firecracker in the mailbox the day before the Fourth. We had one of those big rural mailboxes, of course, and our newspaper from South Bend was always delivered there as well. Dad went to see if it had been delivered yet and was just about to open the box when the cracker went off. He wasn't hurt, but George couldn't sit down for two days!"
Mackie said slyly, "Ever put a string of firecrackers under a flowerpot?"
From there the conversation took a nostalgic turn as they began to trade tales about past Independence Days. Hilary did not contribute, but they now directed some of their remarks to her. Finally, tired from laughing over Mr. Foley's story about once besting his overbearing brother Blair, they finished eating, then crushed the disposable utensils into a paper bag. Mackie was the first to relax, propping himself against a tree and tipping his hat over his face. Maple carefully stretched out her legs, lifting her face into the cooling breeze, and the others lapsed into silence. Quiet drifted about them, an odd occurrence for people who made their living with speech and sound day in and day out.
"Doesn't that lake look nice?" Betty finally remarked wistfully. "Remember wading in the water when we were kids?"
"In my case it was the water from a fire hydrant," laughed Maple, "but I know whatcha mean."
"Too bad we can't do it anymore," Mackie said from under his hat.
Then Maple sat up, glowing. "Why not?"
"Well, of course we can't, Maple," Eugenia said gently, "we're adults."
"So? Why can't adults have fun, too?" Maple scrambled to her feet. "C'mon, Betty. You'll go with me, won't you?"
Scott grinned when their eyes met. Betty then looked at her feet, back to Maple, and then smiled. "I think you're right, Maple. There's no reason we can't have fun any longer, is there? How about you, Eugenia?"
Eugenia bowed her head, looking embarrassed. "Well...I don't know-"
"Aw, c'mon, Eugenia. All we gotta do is go behind that tree and take off our shoes and stockings," coaxed Maple.
"It just seems so..."
"Spontaneous?" Betty said impishly. "Of course. How about you, Hilary?"
"That's all right, Betty," Hilary said, graciously.
"We'd be glad to have you," Eugenia chimed in.
Hilary looked from one to another in dawning surprise, then cast a suspicious look at Scott. He had his eyes half closed, but suppressed a grin when he saw her appraising glance.
"Suit yourself," Maple shrugged when Hilary did not respond.
A moment later, from behind the broad expanse of a nearby oak, they heard a whisper, then a gale of laughter and giggling. Mackie tipped his hat away from his face, raised a quizzical eyebrow at Scott, who also laughed, prompting a guffaw from Mr. Foley. And, although Scott couldn't swear to it, he was certain he'd seen a smile whisk across Hilary's lips.
In a few minutes, Betty, Maple, and Eugenia came tiptoing from behind the oak, shoes and stockings in hand, avoiding stones and trying to appear nonchalant, although Eugenia was blushing furiously.
"Last chance," Maple proposed, as they deposited their discarded footwear at the edge of a blanket. "No? Last one in's a rotten egg!"
She pattered past Betty, who was tentatively testing the water with her toes, and splashed in, gasping. "Holy cow, it's cold!"
"One must look before one leaps, Maple," Hilary said with an arch expression.
"Oh, but it's nice," Betty said, shaking the leftover droplets from Maple's plunge off her skirt. "It's cold but it feels good."
Eugenia looked from Maple to Betty, wading in the water holding their skirts just under their knees, then contented herself with perching on one of the larger rocks at the edge of the water and edging her feet in slowly. A blissful smile accompanied this action. "Oh, my, yes, especially after the last couple of days. I thought I'd never be cool again."
"You know, Mackie," Scott remarked, "it looks like we're missing all the fun."
"I'll just lie here and watch, thanks," Mackie answered sleepily, promptly tipping his hat over his face again.
"What about you, Mr. Foley?" but that man had already taken a cue from Mackie and was resting against the opposite side of the tree, his eyes remaining closed when he shook his head.
"Show 'em how it's done, Scotty!" Maple called. "C'mon in!"
He called, "Not enough surf for me, Mapes."
"You want waves, big guy, we can make 'em, can't we, Betty?"
He watched Betty flush instead of laughing.
Then Hilary said, coolly, her voice raised, "What's wrong, Mr. Sherwood? Not like you at all, not taking a dare. Afraid you'll be bested at water sports?"
He flashed a sarcastic grin at her. "I'll go in if you will, Hildy."
Hilary considered, then with a cat smile and a wicked glance, responded, "You're on."
And with that she rose and gracefully retreated behind the same oak the others had used, emerging barefoot. "Is that check or mate?"
"Draw," Scott retorted, pulling off his own shoes and stockings and rolling up his trouser legs. Then he scrambled from his seat, and, like an amiable Newfoundland, skirted the blankets and strode from the shore directly into the water, his eyes widening as he did. "Whoa, Mapes, you were right."
Hilary made a more graceful entry, testing the water with her toes before stepping into the shallower water to Eugenia's right. "Very soothing. It should be nothing to someone who requested surf."
To his surprise Betty asked, her eyes downcast to watch the movement of her feet in the clear water. "Didn't you grow up near the ocean, Scott?"
He paused in surprise at her initiation of a conversation with him, then, buoyed by the action, answered jauntily, "I certainly did. Hingham, Massachusetts."
"That's just south of Boston, right?" Maple offered.
"Ah, well, there's your problem, Scotty
no stamina," Hilary said airily, blinking innocently under Scott's glare. "You should have spent your summers on the Maine shore. The surf there is guaranteed to turn your toes blue in ten minutes."
"Did you live there, Hilary?" Maple asked curiously.
"We had a summer cottage," the actress replied loftily, then her face softened and her voice warmed. "Not at all like Newport, I'm afraid. It was just a little place. We didn't even have running water or indoor plumbing, but I loved it just the same."
There was still a theatrical note in her voice as she continued talking, but edged with gentleness. Maple took care not to splash as she moved to sit next to her, and first Betty, and then Scott retreated to the edge of the water to sit, feet drifting in the lapping water, to listen to Hilary reminisce. Betty rested her elbows on her knees and her chin on her fists, looking so relaxed and dreamy that a lump came to Scott's throat and inwardly he cursed his luck as even he was drawn into Hilary's tale.
One story led into another as someone would prompt her with a question. Mackie and Mr. Foley, torn between sleep and camaraderie, eventually deserted the tree to join them. The breeze ruffled blankets and curls of hair; at one point Mackie reached back and brought one of the baskets forward, the one they'd discovered also had rich oatmeal cookies squirreled away inside, and they helped themselves.
Betty finally noticed the lengthening shadows, her eyes darting about from person to person as if not wanting to disturb the spell. Scott looked down, then regretfully said "Oh, will you look at the time."
"Oh, no," Eugenia said sorrowfully, "is it time to leave?"
"It's almost five."
"And poor C.J.'s been all alone all afternoon," the tenderhearted organist reminded. "I'm so glad we saved him some cake and strawberries and some of the ham."
"I'd say riding herd on a coupla kids isn't exactly alone, Eugenia," Maple said merrily, as she rose from her seat.
"But you know what I mean. C.J.'s such a nice fellow..."
As they tidied up after the wading party, Scott cocked his head at Hilary, seated on her tree stump buckling the straps to her shoes. "Nice going, Hilary."
"What?" she asked, startled.
"Your stories. Good stuff."
He wondered if she would make a smart remark, but she only blinked at him. "Thank you, Scott." She paused. "Yours was...intriguing."
He laughed, because his own holiday tale had concerned a particularly clever con of his Aunt Agatha's. "Always leave 'em intrigued
that's a Sherwood motto."
Their clean up was much more organized than their arrival, and soon the trash was deposited in a big steel oil drum provided for that purpose nearby. Without anyone asking, Hilary picked up each of the blankets, shook it out, and then draped it over her arm as if it were an everyday occurrence. And then they made the now too-long tramp to the trolley stop.
Scott, who struck out with an energetic stride, swinging the now mercifully lighter empty lemonade jug, nearly stumbled when Betty's voice accosted him. "Scott, slow down for a minute."
He caught himself, glancing over his right shoulder to find her lengthening her steps to catch up with him. "I just wanted to say 'thank you' for suggesting a picnic," she said unexpectedly as she drew abreast of him.
He grinned. "Heck, Betty, that was nothing. Glad you enjoyed it." And then something prompted him to add, "But it was Eugenia who got the food and everyone pitched in for it."
"I know. But it was your idea. Thank you. It made me feel like I was home again."
In the seconds it took him to react he could feel words raging inside him, unbidden: That's what I want: to be home again. To be the way it was before Kurt Holstrom showed up...before whatever it was that turned you against me and that bastard Pruitt put the nails in my coffin...
No. Things had changed somehow today. If he played his cards right, he could make this work.
He had to make it work.
Instead he said cheerfully, "Any time, Betty Roberts
plenty more ideas where that came from."
She said dryly, "Don't let it go to your head," then slowed her step to allow Maple and the others to catch up with her.
"Hey, Scotty," Maple hissed at him a few minutes later as they queued to wait for the lumbering trolley, "what did Betty say to you? Everything okay?"
"Not okay," he said, and Maple frowned, disappointed, but a smile played about his lips as he watched Betty smooth her hair down under her hat, "but looking up." He winked. "Definitely looking up."
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