A Remember WENN story
by Linda M. Young It hadn't changed in six weeks although it felt like another world.
He shook the snow from his cap and brushed it from his shoulders as he halted in the doorway of the familiar tavern. The air was thick and smoky, the lights diffusing through graceful eddies of cigarette fumes drifting upward from ashtrays and mouths. Behind the bar the radio was squawking. It wasn't WENN, he noticed immediately, but KDKA, one of the war broadcasts that now intruded into each day. There was a liberal sprinkling of men in uniform here as well.
He was just another one of them.
"Hey, Sherwood!" called a familiar voice, the beefy tones of old man O'Malley.
Scott Sherwood tucked his cap under his arm and threaded his way through regulars and unfamiliar customers to the bar. Liam O'Malley, the image of the literary Irish bartender, stocky, florid, balding, leaned over the scarred, highly buffed counter. "What're you doing back in this neck of the woods, boyo?"
"On furlough before they ship me out," he said carelessly.
"Here to say bye-bye to particular friends at WENN?" O'Malley laughed with a wink.
The smile that had crossed his face wiped away. "Just friends," he said shortly.
O'Malley had poured drinks for almost as many years as Scott Sherwood had lived and knew his blunder immediately. Accordingly he changed the subject, asking routinely, "What's your poison?"
"Whiskey," Scott said, "neat."
He rubbed his eyes, wishing he could rub the raw nerve O'Malley had exposed instead. The bartender silently poured him a shotglass of whiskey, slid it across the polished surface of the bar.
Scott sampled it moodily, staring across the line of bottles on the ledge behind O'Malley into the gilt-bordered pub mirror. How long had an O'Malley had a bar here anyway? The mirror was pocked with black dots where the silvering had chipped away and his reflection was wavering and yellowed.
Dad had barely recognized him and he couldn't blame him. There were hollows in his cheeks and the uniform which had fit in December was now loose around his collar on this last day of January. His thick dark hair was just beginning to grow back after being close-cropped during induction.
O'Malley observed him with narrowed eyes, then said carelessly, "There's a friend of yours in the back. Last booth."
He gave a wry grin. "I guess I'm on for surprises."
Still, this one he never would have guessed. When he made it to the rear of the shabby little bar, sitting quite alone in the small booth was the last person he'd ever expected to see in O'Malley's.
Victor looked tired, he observed, an anomaly for a man he considered a perpetual motion machine. He had a stack of mimeographed programming schedules neatly spread before him and was checking and scribbling entries into boxes methodically, his brows narrowed over his face, a tall glass of ale at his right elbow.
Funny, he always considered Victor a Buttery type of person. Sure they had met in the George and Dragon in London, where he had been a little in his cups, but he'd thought that was homesickness, Victor's one fling with drowning his sorrows.
What was Victor Comstock doing here anyway? The angry thought flared. As far as Scott knew, he'd grabbed the brass ring. Why was he here instead of being out to dinner with...
He knew he ought to turn around and get the hell out.
Victor chose that moment to dot a period, then look up. He tilted his head a bit to the right at the man before him, but didn't look particularly perturbed. "Hello, Sherwood."
"Hello, Victor," the other man said. His throat was dry. He took a sip of the whiskey and the fiery trickle made him swallow hard.
Victor gestured with the eraser end of his pencil. "Sit down."
Scott looked at him, then shrugged. "Sure, if you want me to."
Victor's response was to describe a "sit" gesture with the pencil again, then he laid it neatly across the programming sheets and took a swallow of ale. The tall glass was almost empty. "Your basic training is over, I presume."
"Week ago Thursday," Scott responded, setting his cap down on the table. "Went to visit my dad and Aunt Aggie and my sister first." He paused, then added, "I thought I'd say goodbye to some folks here. Mapes would never forgive me if I didn't stop by." He indicated the schedules with a gesture of his hand. "Government mugs keeping you busy, I see."
"Too busy," Victor said wryly. "Too many regulations to live up to, too much paperwork, not enough writing."
Writing. The word hung between them. Scott took a deep sip at his whiskey and the fresh burst of alcohol on his empty stomach made his head swim. Might as well get it over with. He finally asked, "So, is she still angry with us?"
Victor regarded him with an odd expression that was half humorous and half resigned. "I assume so. I don't know," he finally said simply.
"You don't-" Scott said, disbelieving.
"Betty doesn't talk to me anymore," he said ruefully. He picked up the pencil, ticked it at the sheets of paper beneath. "Granted, we speak to each other about station business, of course. We discuss programming and future programming and advertisers. But we don't talk."
Scott remembered all too well Betty's explosion after their confrontation in the office. In her forthright country-bred way she described them as acting like a couple of rams after the same ewe and that she wouldn't be fought over like some sheep in a pasture. And she told them she was ashamed of them.
He closed his eyes for a moment, remembering her angry departure from the office, as Victor added, "Mr. Thompson from our legal firm asked her to dinner last night."
"Doug," Scott said bitterly. It had been a joke a year ago. It no longer was.
"If it's any comfort to you," Victor said, eyeing him shrewdly, "Betty declined." When Scott did not respond, he started to idly check off his sheets once again. "Perhaps it would be best not to talk about Betty? Did you have an enjoyable visit with your parents?"
"Father," Scott said absently, leaning backward in the high- backed seat of the booth, "and my aunt. She raised me. Mother died when I was a kid." He paused for a moment. "Her and my baby sister." He snorted. "Sister. I saw my older sister's kid. He joined the Navy. Laney's nearly crazy over it. But Aunt Agatha told me privately that he won't get hurt because they won't dare assign Alan anywhere with any responsibility...how'd she put it? 'Heaven forbid they trust that innocent infant with a rifle! He can't even cheat at cards properly, and Sherwoods learn that before they can ride a bicycle.'" He grinned thinly. "Of course she didn't dare say it in front of Laney."
Victor began a new page of figures, then shook his head in exasperation, set the pencil down and finished his ale instead. "Are we referring to the same aunt who visited the station last year? As I recall you informed her WENN was secretly a branch of the FBI."
"Who told you that?" Scott asked in surprise.
"You did," Victor said, smiling briefly. "During our sojourn to the Buttery for something to reduce the swelling in your eye."
"Oh, yeah." Now that had been an odd day. He'd voluntarily owned up on his transgressions for only the second time in his life, accepted his just desserts without fighting back (although had he assumed he could lay out Victor Comstock in a fight, he'd have given it a second thought after meeting that right hook), and then had been accompanied by the same man who had hit him to find an icepack. Somehow within all that talk about his moneymaking schemes Aunt Aggie had been bound to come up in the conversation. "That's the one. Forthright and honest...at least within the family." His eyes were faraway as he added, "I remember her talking about Betty after her visit. Said she had 'sand.' Thought she'd do well as a Sherwood."
Victor arched one eyebrow. "I thought we weren't going to talk about Betty."
Scott reddened, took a quick sip of the whiskey. "Yeah."
"'Sand,'" continued Victor, as if the exchange never happened. "Now there's a word I haven't heard since my childhood. My aunt used it herself."
Scott waved at O'Malley for another drink. "Your aunt cheat at cards, too?" he asked with a wry grin.
Victor took it with good grace. "Aunt Margaret didn't know a spade from a trowel."
Scott chuckled, accepting the whiskey O'Malley brought to him. "What's your poison, Victor? Another glass of ale? It's on me."
Victor regarded Scott's choice. "Bourbon?"
"Three Feathers," Scott said with some surprise at the appraising glance, arching an eyebrow when Victor asked for the same.
"Aunt Margaret brought me up following my parents' death," Victor added thoughtfully. "Of course I was almost at an age to be leaving home at that time. Once I recovered, I started university almost immediately."
Victor's eyes dropped for a moment. "Spanish influenza."
Scott almost blurted, "You survived?" before realizing it would sound ridiculous; the proof was before him in the flesh. This was something his family had read about in the papers. He only knew second-hand of others who had been affected.
Without thinking he said, "Betty lost her grandfather and...an uncle, I think, in the epidemic."
O'Malley dropped off Victor's whiskey at that moment, delaying his startled "Betty spoke to you about her family?"
Scott closed his eyes for a moment. Yeah. About her doting father and strict mother, elder sister and the no-longer-little brother who wanted his own farm. About Elkhart and best friends and writing stories and going on errands and everything she spoke about I wanted to be a part of...
"A couple of times," he shrugged carelessly, but there was a glimmer in Victor's eyes as if he believed none of it.
Victor settled back in his seat. "I was extremely rude to her when she first arrived. All her writing skill couldn't make up for the fact that she was untrained in radio scripting and would probably be a nuisance to instruct. I looked her in the eye and challenged her, certain she'd turn and run. She didn't." He smiled reminiscently. "You should have seen her, Sherwood. The very epitome of the little country girl arriving in the big city, suitcase and parcels in tow. 'Sand' indeed!"
Scott cocked his head at his companion. "I thought we weren't going to talk about Betty."
Victor sipped at his drink. "I don't think we can help it."
Stubbornly, Scott stared at the table and nursed his drink for many minutes. Victor jotted a few more notes down on his programming sheet. The door to the bar opened and closed, sending cigarette smoke and the scent of beer eddying over them.
"She wasn't even my type," he finally said, almost angrily.
"And that would have been?" Victor asked.
"A blonde with not much up top. Hell, red-head or brunette for that matter. Out for fun or for herself."
The amused tone in Victor's response made Scott laugh. "Close. Hell, she was all over me the moment I walked in the door. I'd seen so many of her I cut her dead."
Victor looked perplexed. "I hadn't even remembered to inquire all these months. Whatever happened to the enterprising Miss Mellon?"
"She made a film called Amorous Airwaves and vamoosed. I'd say she's presently sleeping her way up the ladder."
"Pity," Victor reflected. "She had an excellent radio presence." He arched an eyebrow. "Also an excellent feminine presence."
"Not as overwhelming as she imagined. Nowhere near as attractive as a good scam," Scott said archily.
Of course it was only part of the truth, but he wasn't about to tell Victor Comstock that. That he'd gone to see what a rube like Betty Roberts could have possibly done to drive the sensible man across from him into his cups at a British pub. That he'd discovered the woman behind the story was more mesmerizing than any scam he'd ever run. That she'd quit him of thoughts of travel and conquests and half-dressed dames and replaced them with dreams of evenings in a snug little home with a clever woman who could match him word for word.
Now all he had were the dreams.
"She fired me," he said reflectively, laughed at Victor's curious expression, then launched into the story of his first day at WENN. It should have ended there, but someone at the bar bought rounds for everyone in uniform and the third whiskey somehow loosened his tongue as well as his memory. The smoke, the noise, even Victor himself blurred and there were just the memories, as bright as old man O'Malley's mirror was dull.
He told the radio stories with relish, gleefully embellishing the schemes Victor had only read from the station logs, but finally found himself lingering over last Christmas, and that frustrating long quarantine, not of the arguments that had marred the later days, but of the bright early ones: a brief moment in the hallway, a turn on an improvised dance floor. That was when he put the shot glass down, reluctantly. It was time to stop when you began to feel nostalgic about arguing over a sound board in the control room.
Victor, with a thoughtful expression he couldn't place, asked, "And where do you go next?"
Scott grinned. "Loose lips sink ships, remember? But let's say they found something of my past interesting. I've got a berth somewhere in a cipher room. Just sorry it's in a nothing town like D.C."
"I found the atmosphere in Washington exhilarating myself, but then I found broadcasting in London the consummate challenge until the bombs intruded." Victor commented mildly. "Did they not consider you for radio work? You seem to have a considerable talent for it, and this war will require good broadcasters."
"Talent? Improvisation is more like it." He slid out of his seat, picked up his cap. "I've bent your ear long enough. Time for me to vamoose."
Victor looked regretfully at his schedules. "I should finish these." He tapped on the papers, then asked, "I don't suppose I could ask you to deliver a message for me."
"After the last message you asked me to pass on, the question is would you trust me with it?" Scott joked, and was surprised when Victor gravely responded that he would. "If you can wait a few more minutes while I write a note, that is."
He could spare a few minutes, he supposed. "I'm not going anywhere for a coupla days. Sure, I'll hit the head while you do that."
When he returned from the men's room, Victor was already absorbed in the schedules once more, and a neat note was folded at the edge of the booth's table. The recipient's name was quite plain.
Scott froze and asked nevertheless. "This is for Betty?"
Victor gave a small smile. "I believe that's what I wrote." He put one hand on the note. "You did say, didn't you, that you were planning to say farewells at the station? You mentioned Miss LaMarsh. But if you're not...don't worry about it. I'll just deliver the message myself if that wasn't your destination."
He was angry at himself. He'd volunteered for a war; he would have gone to fight Germans or Japs had he been assigned to do so. How could he be afraid of delivering a simple note? "No, that's exactly where I was headed. I'll be glad to take it."
He thrust the note in his pocket, then held out his hand. "Thanks for the company, Victor. It was nice seeing you again."
To his surprise, Victor stood up to shake his hand. "I enjoyed your company as well. Take care of yourself, Sherwood."
"Hey, maybe we'll bump into each other in Washington," Scott said carelessly.
"I don't believe we'll be traveling in the same circles," Victor responded. "But I suppose anything is possible. Goodbye, Scott."
And now he was back on the street, back in the snow, and Victor had returned to his schedules and he was walking toward a building that had become too familiar to him in two years. It was late enough now that the radio store on the ground level was closed, and the dim glow of the dials in the show window were all that he could see flanking the entrance. But upstairs, and his eyes traveled to the fourth floor as he walked, the windows at WENN were glowing brightly. What was on tonightValiant Journey, wasn't it, followed by the Crimson Blade...or had war revamped that routine as well-
"Oooof!" he said as a figure darted from the entrance of the Buttery and they collided.
The cliché movie scene to end all cliché scenes, he would think later, but now he only noticed the familiar dark eyes meeting his. "Hello, Betty."
Her mouth parted in surprise as she recognized his face. "Scott?" She looked him over as if she were afraid he were an illusion and would vanish.
Another customer entering the restaurant tossed them an annoyed look as he detoured around them. "We're in the way," Scott said gently, drawing her aside next to the front window, where they crunched on the congealed slush gathered under the eaves of the building.
"I-" she began, then dropped her eyes. "I didn't know you were in town."
"Just got here," he said, trying to make his voice breezy. "Wanted to press a little flesh on my way out."
To his surprise, the phrase seemed to make her shiver. "Betty, are you okay?"
"I'm fine," she answered strongly, raising her chin again. "It's just the cold. Or hadn't you noticed the snow?"
" I could hardly miss it," he said. She was wearing a smart, small red hat tilted a bit rakishly to the left and the snow had already dusted it with a thin icing. Here it was January and she looked like a Christmas card.
"Everyone's still upstairs," she continued. "We're doing a special broadcast tonight, a story I wrote about men leaving for the war. While they were on the air, I thought I'd run out for some supper. I really do need to get back. American Way Greeting Cards is the sponsor, so of course Mr. DeVere is upstairs, as nervous as that proverbial cat. I don't want C.J. to have to cope with him too long."
"You've pre-empted Valiant Journey?" he asked in amusement. "What did Hilary think of that?"
"She doesn't mind," Betty said with a smile. "I gave her the part of the courageous wife. She plays it very well."
They walked toward the display window of radios as she continued, "I'm not certain what happened between her and Jeff. Things are...calm right now. We still don't have any answers. But Jeff doesn't seem angry or upset. It makes a Sam Dane mystery look almost simplistic." She stopped with her hand on the door. "I'm glad you came back to say goodbye." She paused. "Everyone's missed you."
Not everyone, he thought to himself. "Betty..."
He almost failed, then set his jaw, said, "Betty, I'm sorry...about what happened the day I left. I didn't mean for it to come out so badly." Then he gave a derisive laugh. "But why should it be different from all the other times? My record of bad departures stands unsullied. But I am sorry."
Before he could open the door for her, she darted forward to do it herself, her back to him so he could not see her face. "It was a tough few days, Scott. Nothing really...well, came out as it should have."
It had for the man who had remained in Pittsburgh, he thought ruefullyeven if she wasn't speaking to him, she was still there. But aloud he only asked, "So, did Victor ever find someone to take that job in London?"
"The Army filled that themselves," Betty answered. "I think Victor regretted turning it down."
Scott blinked at her. "Victor-"
"You did pretty well with that scheme," she said, facing him, her arms crossed, but expression unreadable. "You size up people pretty well, Scott Sherwood. He considered it for three days before deciding not to accept. But there's a position opening in Washington that I suspect he will take. He's there most of the time anyway. It's where he belongs."
He wanted to ask where she belonged, but the truth would have been too painful.
She was moving toward the elevator purposefully, but he stopped to listen to the one radio the proprietor left on all the time, the one tuned to WENN. The sound was muffled coming through the air vent in the door to the radio shop, but he could make out Maple speaking, playing Hilary's friend or sister, he wasn't sure which. The two women were talking about Pearl Harbor, which in this narrative had happened a few days earlier. Then Maple's character, Amy, seemed to react to something and excused herself to go into the kitchen.
"Hello, Doris," said Jeff Singer, to the sound of a door opening.
Hilary's character, Doris, gasped. "Why...Howard...you're in uniform."
"Signed up the morning after Pearl Harbor," Jeff, as Howard, explained. "Pretty good fit, huh? For just off the rack...they're shipping me out tonight."
Doris asked, "You're leaving me? Leaving Clear River?"
Scott's mouth dropped open; in the dim light of the foyer and from the display window, Betty's vivid blush was still visible as Howard continued in an echo of what Scott had uttered six weeks earlier, "Doris, sweetheart, you know me. Once I went to Spain to fight against Nazi domination, and if I fought then with freedom fighters for cities like Madrid and Toledo, I'm certainly going to fight for towns like Toledo, Ohio, and Valencia, Pennsylvania. If I'm going to win this thing for all the Doris Martins in this country, maybe that means I have to do without the one I care about for a while. Maybe that's how this whole thing works."
"Oh, Howard!" Doris breathed, and Mr. Foley's much despised kiss sound effect was heard. "I'll miss you so much. I love you, darling."
Eugenia's organ rose in a stirring tremolo and then faded into silence before Mackie's voice broke it for a low-key announcement for contributions to the Red Cross.
"I didn't think you'd mind," Betty said self-consciously as he stared at her in disbelief. "It was just what I needed to finish the second act and I-" She blinked her eyes hard and it was only then he realized she was trying to keep from crying. "And I wanted to see how it sounded with a more positive ending."
Scott said dryly, "Yes, I'm sure the audience will appreciate it."
Betty murmured something under her breath and he stepped forward. "What did you say?"
"That..." and she swallowed and took a deep breath, "...that I wrote it that way because it was the ending I would have preferred."
Had the radio shut off suddenlya tube burned out, a fuse blown? All he could hear was his heart, beating so loudly in his ears it drowned out everything else. "Betty?"
"Given time to be honest with herself," she said thickly, "a person realizes she doesn't say 'buy barley futures' facing the muzzle of a gun for no reason at all."
"Or 'I love you,'" he said, his cold hands reaching out for her warm ones.
Many, many minutes later, after she had kissed him and he had kissed her, and they were still reluctant to let one another go, he cleared his throat and moved one arm to produce the note from his pocket. "I told Victor I'd give that to you." When she looked startled, he added, "Don't worry. This one's legit. No book inscription to crib from this time."
"Where did you see Victor?" she asked.
"He was at O'Malley's, working on programming schedules. Looked like he was planning weeks ahead..." His voice trailed off as she opened the note, read it, then bit her lip, tears making her eyes shiny.
"Here," she said, passing it to him.
Dear Betty,"'Improvisations?'" she asked curiously, swallowing.
Tell Sherwood to remain in Pittsburgh until his transfer comes through. I have contacted General Hopkins to request his reassignment as co-manager (along with yourself) of the W.E.N.N. Since Hopkins had expressed that "he owed me one" after my sojourn in Germany, I expect the reassignment will not be refused. As for myself, I have accepted the position in Washington and will be leaving on the 9 p.m. train.
I spent the past three days preparing suggested program scheduling for the next few months. However, in light of tonight's events I have instead disposed of it and will leave the programming in the capable hands of both of you. I'm certain the enterprising Mr. Sherwood's improvisations will be equal to the task.
It has been both a pleasure and a privilege working with you. If things did not work out exactly as I had hoped, I know it has worked out for what is best for you.
Yours affectionately, Victor
"It's a long story," he said, then grinned. "But let's say I'm not the only one who sizes up people pretty well."
Behind them, Mackie had finished his Red Cross announcement and had segued into a commercial for American Way. He hadn't spoken a dozen words before a burst of static interrupted him and his words began to waver in and outthen died altogether.
"Oh, no!" Betty exclaimed. "We've been advertising this for weeks! Mr. DeVere will be having kittens!" She ran to the elevator, stabbed the button a few times, then turned to Scott. "We need to get upstairs, fast."
Scott already had the stairwell door open. "After you..." Then he grinned. "Very exciting."
For the first time that evening she smiled, eyes bright with tears. "It's good to have you back, Mr. Sherwood."
"It's good to be home, Miss Roberts," he said.
Return to Linda's Remember WENN Fanfiction Page