On a Friday in late October, Bobbie Wheeler and Laura Costello met after school in their working-class neighborhood. Both clutched orange UNICEF cartons they had been given that day in class, along with a picture of a skinny little boy from another country. His pleading eyes and the principal’s voice over the intercom promised that whichever class raised the most money would get extra recess. Bobbie and Laura, dressed in heavy coats and wool caps, met at a street corner halfway between their homes. They set off eagerly together, trudging up the walks of tidy ranchers and capes nestled on quarter-acre lots to collect for world hunger.

After every donation, they shook their tiny cardboard cartons like maracas, the clinking quarters, nickels, and dimes cutting through the brisk New England air. At the end of a row of homes, they met again in the street and walked together slowly, hands in their pockets, up a side street to the next neighborhood.  The trees were ablaze in a canopy of yellow and red against a cobalt sky. Leaves were piling up everywhere, lining curbs and clustering around catch basins. They peeled off maples like teardrops.

Laura’s chestnut hair snaked over the back of her coat in a braid, and her eyes were saucers behind wire-rimmed glasses. The cold had stamped her cheeks with rosy patches.

While they walked, Unicef boxes clinking softly, Laura regaled Bobbie about Sylvia Stemwinder. She was filthy rich, Laura said, and she spent most of her time painting and playing the harp; she went to Mrs. Spence’s School in Manhattan; she was a society girl.

“They have thirty bathrooms in her home on Fifth Avenue.” Laura’s star-struck gaze imagined the opulence somewhere in Bobbie’s eyes. “Thirty! And a doll collection worth a million dollars.”

Laura had liked pretending since they were little girls, and Bobbie always relished the opportunity to inhabit her zany world. But this time Bobbie wondered, if just a little, whether Sylvia Stemwinder might be real. She felt the carton in her pocket. “She must have plenty of quarters,” Bobbie said.

“Drawerfuls!” Laura exclaimed.

They turned off the side street onto a road that ran parallel to their own, and split up again on opposite sides. The homeowners, mostly housewives in their aprons, were generous, depositing rolled up singles and handfuls of quarters into their boxes. At more than one open door, Bobbie felt the inviting warmth from the living room, and smelled the pungent onion and garlic simmering in stews. The comforting aromas ached in her belly. When they tired of collecting, they stopped in front of Bobbie’s house, a raised ranch with a sloping front yard and a pumpkin on the front stoop.

“Let’s break mine open,” Laura said, her eyes wide. She looked around for something sharp. “I’m hungry.”

“You can’t do that.” Bobbie looked up at her house. “You’ll get in trouble.”

Laura dropped her sturdy cardboard carton, the change clinking inside as it landed heavily on the street. She stomped on it with a hard heel, denting a corner. She picked it up and spied the slit, then shook it, trying to coax the change out.

“Darn. They were so easy going in.” She thrust the carton into her pocket and plopped onto the curb. Bobbie sat beside her.

Laura made a dollar sign in a little pile of sand and wiped her hands. “Can you still come over tonight?”

“Of course!” Bobbie was thrilled to have gotten the invitation Laura had mailed her. She was never asked to parties, much less a costume ball for a society girl.

“When Sylvia was young, she rode horses at her country manor in New Canaan.” Laura looked for a reaction from Bobbie. “She had another home in California. Her father was a copper baron.”

Bobbie wanted to hear more, but her mother’s voice coming from the house was intrusive. Time to wash up for dinner. Bobbie rolled her eyes as she started to get up. “Every Friday night the same thing. Meatloaf.”

“Madame Stemwinder has a six-course meal every night,” Laura boasted. “Tonight lamb chops and cranberry sauce.”

“Can I come over to eat?”

“I’ll put a plate aside,” Laura said, dusting the seat of her pants as she stood. “Oh, and don’t forget the invitation.”

When Bobbie went inside, she dug a folded piece of onion paper out of another pair of pants and sat on her bed. She read its contents. The heading, neatly typed, proclaimed ‘From the Desk of Madame Sylvia Stemwinder,’ with a Fifth Avenue address in Manhattan, complete with zip code centered below it. The script was outsize, and curled in every imaginable place, as if the author was a manic conductor or painter who had trouble controlling her instrument.

The letter began with ‘Dear Lord Silliwig.’  Bobbie’s eyes had a faraway look as she pictured herself a stout Englishman with a monocle and handlebar mustache, or Omar Sharif as Alexander the Great.  Smiling, she looked down and continued reading.

I have such fond memories of our camel rides with the Bedouins across the dunes of the Sahara, the faint smell of cloves, the echoing calls to prayer, your expressions of favor toward me. You’re the most charming sort, but it pains me to say I’m not favorably disposed toward marriage just yet. I understand you’re coming to the States on a diplomatic mission. Please do me the honor

The letter was dated October 30, 1970, and signed in the most fabulous script by Madame Stemwinder. Bobbie folded the letter and stuffed it in her pocket. When she was sure her mother was in the kitchen, she stole her father’s only dress shirt from his closet, and a scarf from her mother’s dresser, and hid them in her bomber jacket. After wolfing down her dinner, she slapped her cheeks with some of her father’s Old Spice, shoved the bottle into her pocket, and flattened her short bristly hair with her father’s Brylcreem. She quickly said goodbye to her parents, who were still lingering at the dinner table.

“Eight thirty, Roberta,” her mother called out as Bobbie rushed down the stairs to the garage. “Not a minute later.”

Bobbie peddled hard to Laura’s house, ditching her bicycle beside the driveway. It took several rings before Mr. Costello came to the door, folded newspaper in hand. He held open the door, the low light of the living room partially obscured by his large frame.

“Hi, Mr. Costello. Is Laura home?”

He was red-faced and jowly, and his smile was pleasingly dull. He nodded and pointed the newspaper at the basement door in the kitchen. As Bobbie crossed the threshold, she smelled alcohol on him. The living room looked deserted. The mantel was empty, and two overstuffed boxes occupied the coffee table. A painting of a storm-tossed skiff leaned against the wall, having left its faint outline suspended by a hook above the couch. She figured Mrs. Costello was redecorating. The kitchen was dark and put away. The wall clock said 6:30. If lamb chops had been eaten, she didn’t smell them.

The basement looked like an old movie set. The jazzy strains of Moonlight Serenade dripped from a record player in the corner. A candelabra with three unlit candles sat in the middle of a ping-pong table covered in cream-colored muslin. Two paper plates, plastic knives and forks, paper napkins and Dixie cups had been laid out. Posters of Hedy Lamar, Joan Fontaine, Joan Crawford, Humphrey Bogart, and Clark Gable were taped at the corners to the concrete walls.

“Laura? I mean, Sylvia Stemwinder?” Bobbie unzipped her jacket and withdrew the scarf and dress shirt.

In the opposite corner of the room, Laura sashayed through a curtain of clacking multicolored beads.  She was wearing a sleeveless black sequined dress, white satin gloves running up to her elbows, and a tiara from which sprung a white feather. Her eyes, ringed with black eyeliner, had the manic intensity of Bela Lugosi. She offered Bobbie the back of her hand while holding, Garbo-like, the tip of a long cigarette holder to her mouth.

“Daahling, welcome. I’m so glad you could make it.”

“My dear, you look scrumptious,” Bobbie gushed. “And the china is exquisite.”

Laura ignored the compliment, as if it were a pedestrian observation. She glanced over her shoulder. “Yes, the china. Been in the family for generations.”

Sylvia Stemwinder. Bobbie caught herself staring at her friend’s made-up face, the epitome of grace and femininity. She looked at least sixteen. Bobbie cinched the shirt and scarf between her knees and checked her jacket pockets for the invitation. It was hidden behind a pack of gum in her dungarees. Laura flipped her hand over when Bobbie didn’t offer to kiss it, and accepted the folded paper. She laid the cigarette holder at the edge of the table, produced a pair of half glasses, and scrutinized the invitation as if it were a highly classified cable.

“Manners and good breeding dictate that I welcome you without reservation,” Madame Stemwinder intoned, “but protocol demands that without proper credentials you would have to be escorted from the premises.”

Laura looked up from the invitation with an air of excitement, her crooked teeth exposed by a retreating upper lip. She declared that Bobbie wasn’t a party crasher, then pawed her with cut feline eyes.

“Lord Silliwig, ‘ol chap, you were supposed to dress for the occasion.”

Bobbie slapped her leather chest with both hands, embracing her new name. “My apologies, Madame. Crossed the Atlantic, only to find the help had bought me a dress. I had to sack the poor girl.”
Laura inhaled a volume of air from the cigarette and blew pretend smoke out of the side of her mouth.

“I think you’ll find something suitable in back. Shuffle off now; dinner will be served momentarily.”

“First, perfumes from Persia!” She balled up her scarf and shirt, and laid her father’s Old Spice atop it, as if presenting it to Laura upon a pillow. “Legend has it they turn friends into lovers.”

“Lord Silliwig, you are the charmer.” She accepted the bottle and placed it unceremoniously on the table. Before Bobbie disappeared behind the curtain of multicolored beads, Laura opened the door of a metal cabinet containing cleaning fluids and pulled out a bicycle bell. She gave it two short rings.

“Cissy, the guests are arriving,” she yelled up the stairs. “Champagne, dear, on the double.”

Bobbie parted the beads and stepped inside an anteroom containing boxes of family heirlooms, a stack of National Geographic magazines, a torso mannequin, a rack of winter coats, and suits and dresses out of season. She selected a tuxedo. Two more short bursts of the bell rang out. Bobbie poked her head through the beads as she buttoned her father’s shirt. Madame Stemwinder, sighing and mumbling, trudged up the stairs to the kitchen. Bobbie craned to listen.

“You’ll have to get it yourself, dear,” her father said.

“But Dad, she promised!”

“No buts, Laura. Your mother isn’t herself at the moment. She’s lying down.”

Bobbie bunched the capacious waist in folds, yanked her belt tight, and tucked the cuffs into her athletic socks. Then she clasped the bow tie and slipped on the jacket cut for a portly man. When she heard clinking ice, she wrapped the scarf around her neck and joined Laura at the table with the candelabra. Her sequined friend set down a platter with an open bottle of ginger ale, a bowl of ice, a sleeve of Saltines, and a jar of peanut butter.

“So?” Bobbie pulled at her lapels. She felt like Oliver Hardy on a crash diet.

“Dashing, just dashing.” Laura poured the soda carefully into the Dixie cups and then raised hers. “To love, friendship, and adventure.”

“Hear, hear!” Bobbie hoisted hers. “Bottoms up!”

“To the moon!” Laura laughed primly and gulped her ginger ale. She burped, covered her mouth quickly, and giggled.

Bobbie pointed her empty cup at the Saltines. “The lamb chops look divine.”

“Drink up.” She refilled Bobbie’s cup. “Dinner will be ready momentarily.”

“Excellent scotch,” Bobbie said, twisting the end of her pretend mustache. She cleared her throat.  “I’m desperately sorry, but may I ask if you’re accompanied tonight by any of these fine gentlemen?”

Laura held the cigarette holder in her mouth and pondered the question. She took the measure of her tuxedoed friend, pushing the wire rims with one finger up to the bridge of her nose.

“I have many boyfriends, Lord Silliwig,” she said, her hand resting on a jutting hip barely noticeable in the oversized dress. “I can’t imagine loving just one.”

“A bit of merriment then, before dinner?” Bobbie pulled at her scarf and read the label of a record. She took Moonlight Serenade off the turntable, laid down a 45, and lowered the stylus. The Twist. She took Laura’s hand and coaxed her into standing on the couch with her.

“Bourgeois, Lord Silliwig. Very Bourgeois.”

Laura peeled off her gloves. Bobbie shed her jacket. Their feet sank into the cushions. They wobbled and collided, dropping like two anchors, their faces ruddy and foreheads damp. Laura brushed aside a few strands of hair from her face that had shaken loose from the tiara. Bobbie reached for a stray hair, but their fingers jammed.

“You’re so…” Laura shook off the sting and laughed, her thirteen years asserting themselves from behind the makeup. “Sweet.”

Bobbie’s deep admiration for Laura turned to desire. She took in the whole of her friend’s face, as if it were a painting that required study to comprehend its full beauty.

“What?” Laura deadpanned, the smile vanishing from her face.

A moment’s hesitation, then a reckless gamble. Bobbie leaned in with eyes closed and lips parted. When she didn’t sense Laura, she opened her eyes. Laura held her position, studying Bobbie’s lips. Her air of theatricality had vanished. She frowned and shrank back. Bobbie hung her head and gently slapped her thigh.

“I’m so stupid.”

Bobbie felt her friend’s hand on her shoulder. “No you’re not,” Laura whispered. When Bobbie turned away, Laura got off the couch and went to the record player. Bobbie felt helpless, regretting her rejection, as she stared into the box of 45’s. Then, as if nothing had happened, Laura perked up. She slipped on her gloves and assumed the air of Madame Stemwinder. She pulled out a 45.

“Our favorite, my dear friend,” she said, holding it aloft. “Strangers in the Night.”

“I’m sorry,” Bobbie said. “Really.”

“Forget it, Silliwig.” Laura waved her off and sauntered to the table. She rang the bicycle bell.

“Cissy, my dear, the chops.”

Bobbie bounded off the couch. “But, Sylvia, the Sahara.”

Laura glared at her over the top of her glasses. “Remember, the company.”

They sat down. Laura spread a napkin over her lap. Bobbie dug hers inside her collar. Laura scooped peanut butter out of the jar with a butter knife. She slathered it on the Saltines, and ate ravenously. Bobbie watched as her friend shoved the crackers into her mouth, crumbs spilling onto the tablecloth. Bobbie helped herself to a cracker and nibbled it in silence.

After washing down the crackers with ginger ale, Laura lifted her eyeglasses. Her mascara was running. She blotted at it with her glove. Bobbie lowered the cracker to her paper plate, already smudged with peanut butter.

“Please tell me what’s wrong.”

“My Dad lost his job.” She averted her eyes. “We have to move.”

Bobbie remembered the boxes, the painting, the empty mantel. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“My parents,” Laura said, pausing to wipe her cheeks with the butt of her palm. “They want to keep it a secret.”

“Maybe you won’t have to.”

“My Dad says things are real bad,” Laura said. She rested her forehead on her mascaraed palm, pushing the tiara higher up on her head. “They’re moving his factory somewhere else.”

“Don’t worry,” Bobbie offered without conviction.

“I don’t want to go. I like my room.”

“It won’t be so bad. We’ll write to each other.”

“Maybe we can spend summers together at my new house.”

The optimistic talk was as much a charade as the costume ball. They stole wistful glances and collapsed in their chairs. Bobbie noticed for the first time the hum of the dehumidifier, the sweating concrete walls, the harsh fluorescent lights overhead. She felt guilty for her own hurt. She felt silly in the tuxedo. She pushed herself away from the table and thumbed through the 45’s, selecting Can’t You Feel My Heartbeat by Herman’s Hermits. She held the record in the air.

“Dance with me?”

Laura fingered the Saltines, now broken and scattered on the paper plate. She shook her head. The tiara sagged to the side of her head. She picked up a shard and bit into it.

Bobbie laid the record aside. “Maybe I should go.”

“Your lamb chops are getting cold.” The plastic sleeve crinkled as she helped herself to another cracker.

“I don’t think I’m hungry anymore,” Bobbie said.

Laura rang the bell. “I’ll have Cissy wrap a plate for you.”

Bobbie edged away from the record player and disappeared behind the clacking beads. When she finished changing, she slipped on her jacket and stood beside Laura.

“I had a really good time. Thanks for inviting me to the ball, Madame Stemwinder.”

Laura nodded, but didn’t look up.

“Maybe you and me can go trick or treating tomorrow?” Bobbie said.

“Maybe.”

Bobbie walked to the stairs. When she mounted the first step she looked back at her friend, now bent over the table, her face buried in the crook of her elbow.

“It’ll be all right, really,” Bobbie blurted and then raced up the stairs. When she made it to the kitchen, she saw Mr. Costello sleeping in the recliner, the open newspaper draped over his chest, a half-empty bottle of amber liquid and a glass on the table beside him under the lamp’s warm glow. She lifted a picture frame out of a nearby box—Laura in a bib and pigtails sitting in the lap of her beaming parents. She looked up at Mr. Costello, snoring softly, then returned it quickly to the box. She quietly closed the door and peddled fiercely toward home, the fear of losing a best friend overtaken by worry.

When she got to the foot of the driveway, she dropped the bicycle and ran to the kitchen door. Inside, she glanced up at the clock. Ten after eight. She wouldn’t get in trouble. Her father was listening to the radio at the table. He was handsome, with thick hair rippling back from his forehead, a Roman nose and a faded green anchor tattooed on his fleshy forearm. When he wasn’t at the plant, he wore tee shirts—a hard pack of Camels rolled up in the sleeve—exposing a bicep hardened by years as an aircraft mechanic. He took up space. She looked up to him.

He was fixing his watch with a tiny screwdriver swallowed up in his thick hand. The toolbox lay open beside him. She leaned against the table and watched. He didn’t look up from what he was doing.

“Hey Sport.”

“Hi Dad.”

“You have fun at Laura’s?”

“I think so.” She watched him poke the rusted mainspring with the tip of the screwdriver. The lingering smell of meatloaf warmed her. “Where’s Mom?”

“The store. We needed milk and bread.”

“Hey Dad? Can I ask you something?”

“Shoot.”

“You’re job. They can’t send it to another country, can they?”

Her father laughed hoarsely and smiled up at her quizzically, his teeth yellowed from the Camels.

“Why would you ask that?”

She shrugged. “Well, can they?”

“Not unless the Russkies take over.” He went back to work on the watch. “The aircraft engines I work on for the military are being used right now over North Vietnam.”

Bobbie hoped they weren’t bombing hungry people. “Dad, Mr. Costello—”

“Shh.” He leaned into the radio. Something about President Nixon and a basic income for everybody. He was shaking his head.

“Golden hammocks for everybody,” he snapped. “I bust my butt every day and the welfare bum in Bridgeport gets a free ride.”

Bobbie pictured Mr. Costello asleep in the recliner. He probably spent his days there. She wondered if her father would think he was a bum. She felt a rising anger that at once confused and scared her.

“Can I borrow a screwdriver?”

“What for?”

She reached into the toolbox. “My piggybank.”

“Bring it back when you’re done.”

She closed her bedroom door. As she took off her jacket, she hurled her father’s shirt to the floor. She loosened the screw to her piggybank, the coins spilling onto the bedspread. Then she grabbed the UNICEF box off her dresser. The hungry boy from another country would have to wait. She punctured the heart of the carton with the screwdriver. Then she stabbed and stabbed until she cried. After she had shredded the box, she wiped her nose on her forearm and counted her take. Twenty dollars. She scooped the bills and change into a leftover paper lunch bag, and marked it for Madame Stemwinder.

For lamb chops, maybe.

 

Dave DeFusco

Dave DeFusco is the communications manager for the Johns Hopkins School of Education, and holds an MFA in creative writing from Fairfield University.

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