By B.P. Greenbaum
August 17, 1962
Pittsburgh melted. Carolyn Martin became convinced that, just like a pat of butter in a hot pan, it would soon slide right into Ohio. The heat wave showed no signs of abating, and all the girls at Cane Street House were glazed by it. Breakfast felt atypically quiet; their faces glistened at the table that morning, so many bellies like watermelons. But it was a traditional Friday, fish day, and the day of departure. Empty, Carolyn and Angeline would be leaving.
The dense air in the third floor bedroom she shared with Angeline stifled all conversation. The attic fan sang above their heads. They packed their belongings after breakfast. Carolyn sat on the narrow bed, the hard, yellow-striped suitcase between her knees. Angeline fussed with the last strand of errant hair while looking into the small, square mirror above their room sink.
Time to go. It was time to go. In a moment it would be time to go. The words came together again and again in Carolyn’s mind. Such simple words, and yet she could not see herself back where she’d started. She flipped the leather-wrapped handle of the suitcase back and forth in her hand.
“Your turn,” Angeline said, her brunette ponytail swaying as she turned to Carolyn and then back again to the mirror she never seemed to want to leave.
As Carolyn stood up, she freed the back of her cotton dress from her legs. She had to lean down to see in. Her full-moon face looked back now with the finger-width dark pools beneath her gray eyes. She looked so much older than she remembered looking not even two weeks ago, before the baby came. She’d been here seven months, and she wondered if she’d aged a year for each. If she had, that would make her twenty-four, she thought. She felt much older than that. She certainly didn’t feel seventeen.
She ran a hand over her rusty-blonde hair. Angeline had pulled it back for her and braided it into a long snake that extended from the crown of her head down to the center of her back. She’d tied the braid off with a ribbon that matched the secondhand, yellow shirtwaist dress that Carolyn had squeezed herself into that morning, her body still swollen.
“Put some lipstick on, Car,” Angeline said. “It will make you feel better.”
Lipstick was Angeline’s answer to everything. Nail polish too.
“No, thanks, I’m fine,” Carolyn said.
“I’m taking this downstairs,” Angeline said, hefting her suitcase and heading for the door. “You coming?”
“In a minute,” Carolyn said, waiting for Angeline to leave.
She looked, then, at the room: the stripped twin beds, the empty wooden dressers, the picture of Jesus on the wall between the beds, the smudged window, the faded green rug. She hadn’t remembered it looking this empty when she’d come here, but now there really was nothing of her or Angeline left. Isn’t that how she wanted it? This wasn’t a place you would try to remember.
Yet every detail of this house had branded itself into Carolyn’s mind. The Tiffany window above the front door oddly depicting Sirens singing upon rocks in shades of blue and green, the floor-length windows in the parlors, the white brick tile shapes in the little bathroom just down the hall from her room, the long, marble sink in the main bath on the second floor, the brass chandelier that hung above the entrance foyer with its hundred tears of cut glass, the hum of the attic fan, the song of the pipes when the hot water came on. She took a deep breath and left the room.
The sweat trickled along the hollow of her spine as she walked down the upper stairs and then down the main flight, her hand on the oversized mahogany banister, the suitcase smacking her thigh. Miss Beachum and Mrs. Dyninski stood at the bottom, waiting for her in the open foyer, their round forms pressing the fabric of their dark skirts outward in unison. Mrs. Dyninski held Angeline’s hand. The matrons both wore their hair pulled sharply back, tied up in obedient buns, Mrs. Dyninski’s a salted black and Miss Beachum’s a weathered auburn. Though they were about the same circumference, Miss Beachum was almost as tall as Carolyn, while Mrs. Dyninski probably never saw five feet, even with the inch-high heels of her shoes.
Carolyn’s hand grazed the pineapple knob that topped the finial post of the staircase as she stepped down to join them. As a line of sweat ran down her round face, Mrs. Dyninski let go of Angeline long enough to press a small, wooden cross tethered to a narrow ribbon into Carolyn’s hand.
“Go with God, my child. May He bless you and keep you always,” she said, her face somber, her dark eyes liquid.
Miss Beachum smiled at her. “And don’t forget your prayers. You will always be in ours.” Her pale eyes looked moist too but then so did the rest of her. “Travel safely. We shall miss you.”
“Thank you,” Carolyn said, squeezing the cross in her hand as Miss Beachum leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, her hand resting for a moment on the side of Carolyn’s face. They had too many girls to miss, Carolyn thought. A hard lump closed its fist in her stomach as she realized she wouldn’t miss them. She felt the edges of the cross press into her palm.
The taxi waited for them at the curb. Taking her suitcase in both hands, she followed Angeline out. The bus ticket, along with the letter from her mother, were tucked in the front pocket of her dress and rubbed against her forearm. Her saddle shoes squeezed against her feet, her bobby socks sodden. She glanced back at the house while Angeline climbed into the cab. The matrons stood just inside the door, the tall turret rising to their right capped with the inverted cone. Carolyn waved to them but didn’t wait to see if they replied. She turned and climbed into the superheated air of the cab, putting her suitcase on the floor in front of her. The back of her legs immediately stuck to the hot seat, and she pulled her dress down as best she could to cover them. The cabbie eyed them in the rearview mirror but didn’t speak. As soon as she closed the door, the cab started moving.
Angeline began to cry. Carolyn looked out the window at the blur of buildings. Her breasts hurt. The pills the doctor had given her hadn’t completely dried up her milk. She took out the bus ticket and looked at it. She took out the letter from her mother and opened it, the creases of the linen paper worn even after a week, the page smudged with a spot of peanut butter.
August 9, 1962
I’m so glad you are coming home on Friday. I’ve given this a lot of thought and this is the story I think you should tell everyone when you return to town. You have an aunt in California; let’s call her Aunt Jeanne because you really did have an Aunt Jeanne. Did you know that? She wasn’t really your aunt, but you called her that. So, she became very ill and you had to go and help her out. While you were out there, you decided to attend school and now you are ready for your senior year. (The matrons tell me that you’ve done very well with your studies.) There were complications with her medical condition and you had to stay longer than expected. You don’t have to say any more than that. I’m certain no one knows so you can come back and not have to worry about your reputation. I’ve enclosed twenty dollars. I didn’t know if you’d need to get something to eat on the way home and wasn’t sure if the matrons were asking you to buy your own Kotex or not. I’m so happy for you that all this is behind you now and you can start again with a clean slate.
Your mother, Edith Martin
She felt the edges of the folded twenty-dollar bill in the envelope. She put it back in with the letter and put the letter back into her pocket next to the ticket. Why had her mother reminded her that her name was Edith? Did she always sign her letters like that? She slipped the ribbon holding the cross over her head, tucking it down into the front of her dress.
The chrome and glass of the Greyhound bus station loomed beside them as the cab pulled up. The cabbie didn’t move and didn’t say a word. He’d already been paid. The girls got out, struggling with their suitcases. They walked into the terminal, threading their way through the crowd of people who were dressed in their traveling clothes. The women looked soggy beneath their trim hats. Many had even taken off their gloves. The men wore seersucker suits.
The girls moved to the wooden benches inside and sat down. Carolyn looked at the ticket again and thought about lies. Angeline wiped her eyes with a Kleenex.
“When we get to Philly, do you want to go shopping? We have a whole hour, and didn’t your mom send you money? I bet you could get a nice skirt and blouse or maybe some sandals.”
“I hate shopping,” Carolyn said.
“You still have to do it every now and then, and besides, you need new socks. Look. They’re already dirty. You don’t want to go home like that, do you?”
Carolyn looked down. Sure enough, her right sock had a black streak on it. She never did manage to stay clean for more than thirty seconds, but then she’d never been the one who cared. She sighed.
“What am I going to do with you?” Angeline said.
She sounded like Edith, Carolyn thought. The picture bloomed in her mind of how it would go at that final bus stop. Carolyn would step off the bus, and Edith would be standing there, her scarf on, her dark glasses with the little rhinestones in the corners, her cigarette perched at the end of the black holder, her waist cinched into a small, delicate circle. She’d be leaning against the Bonneville, the top down, looking like Jackie Kennedy. Carolyn would put her suitcase in the back. Edith would wait for Carolyn to get in before sliding behind the steering wheel. Now you’ve got the story straight, don’t you? The lie, Carolyn thought.
“Carolyn, are you listening to me?” Angeline said, tapping her on the arm.
“I was just thinking about something,” Carolyn said.
“They have this amazing store right in the center of Philly. It’s called Wannamaker’s. My mother takes me there for Christmas every year, even though it takes over an hour…”
Carolyn saw herself sitting in the Bonneville, riding back into Forestville, right through the center of town. She’d have to show up at school. They’d all ask her, Where have you been? We missed you. You left so quickly, we all thought something happened. So tell me about California. That must have been so dreamy. Neat! Were the boys cute there? She always wanted to go to California. Is that why Edith picked California? Say, did you hear about Matt Richardson?
She put her hand on her stomach and rubbed. It felt so soft now. How could she talk about a place she’d never seen? She looked up at the board, the large clock in the center. In fifteen minutes the bus would leave. They’d take the 11:50 to Philly; they’d have about an hour before Angeline would go south and Carolyn would take the 5:20 to Vineland and then the 7:30 to Salem.
“I still can’t believe that Marilyn Monroe is dead. She was pretty old, I suppose, but still…”
“I have to go to California,” Carolyn said.
“What? Oh! That’s right, that’s where Marilyn lived.”
“I have to go to California first.”
The skin between Angeline’s eyes formed a double crease, which always happened when she thought about something. “I don’t understand. That doesn’t make sense,” she said.
“It does. That’s my story, see. I went to California to be with my Aunt Jeanne. How am I supposed to tell that story if I’ve never been to California?”
“It’s just a story. Just imagine it. You’ve seen pictures, right? That’s all you need,” Angeline said, checking her supply of the tissues. “Now, let’s get serious here. I really do think you’d look great in baby blue and you never wear it. You have the same coloring as Marilyn.”
Carolyn sighed. “I have to go to the ladies,” she said. Her stomach hurt.
“You look whiter than usual. Are you all right?”
“I’m just a little queasy,” Carolyn said, and she headed for the bathroom.
“Don’t be long,” Angeline warned. “It’s almost time. Oh, I’ll go with you.”
Carolyn barely made it into the stall before she lost all of her good breakfast. For a minute or two, it felt as if she’d turned inside out, her stomach revolting. Again and again she vomited up everything, and when she had nothing left, she felt better. She wiped her mouth with a bit of toilet paper and joined Angeline at the huge mirror.
“Jesus, Car,” Angeline said, glancing at Carolyn for a moment before turning once again to look at herself. “Are you all right?”
“Better,” Carolyn said, rinsing off her face in the sink, washing out her mouth.
“My mother’s going to have a cow when she sees me,” Angeline said, examining her figure. “I’ve gained at least ten pounds in all the right places. Do you think people will look at me differently?”
Carolyn dried her face and looked at herself. She looked nothing like Edith. Never had. “I don’t want to go home,” she said.
“Who does?” Angeline asked, pulling a smoke from her pocket and lighting it. “Come on. I bet they called for our bus while we were in here.”
They walked back to the benches and sat down. “Second call, Bus 305 to Philadelphia,” the announcer crackled over the loudspeaker. “Bus 305…” he repeated. They picked up their suitcases and headed outside.
A line of at least fifteen people had already formed as, one by one, the porter placed bags in the storage compartment below while the driver collected tickets and the passengers stepped up into the bus. The sun beat down without mercy. Carolyn’s mouth felt dry. She touched Angeline’s arm.
“Let’s go to California,” she said. “Let’s go, you and I. Right now.”
“We can’t just do that,” Angeline said, her eyes widening.
“Because we can’t. We have families.”
“That’s a good one,” Carolyn said. “You told me you and your mother do nothing but fight.”
“But she’d kill me if I didn’t come home,” Angeline said, stepping forward. Carolyn took a step with her, glancing at the bus.
“She can’t kill you if you’re a thousand miles away,” Carolyn said. “Besides, why do they get to decide everything? Where we go, what we do, when we do it? Look at what we’ve done, Angeline. Don’t you see?”
They took another step forward. Carolyn watched a man hand the driver a ticket. Something in her chest tightened. She felt for the letter still in her pocket. She had twenty dollars. Would that get her to California?
“Sorry, Car. I can’t do that and neither can you. You have to go home.”
But she didn’t. Edith wasn’t here. She may as well have been in another world.
They stepped up to the driver. Carolyn watched Angeline hand him her ticket. She watched the black hand of the porter take the handle of the suitcase and lift it effortlessly into the compartment. She saw him turn and look expectantly at her, his eyes unusually round. She felt the handle in her hand. She decided not to let it go.
“I’ll miss you, Angie,” Carolyn said. “I’ll write to you sometime.”
“What?” Angeline said.
“I’m not getting on this bus.”
“But you have to ride with me,” Angeline said. “I don’t want to go alone.”
“This is crazy. You can’t do this,” Angeline said, her voice rising an octave.
“It’s different for you. I’m not ready.” Carolyn put a hand on Angeline’s shoulder. “Good-bye.”
“You can’t go!” Angeline said, grabbing for her arm.
“I have to get the story right,” Carolyn said, pulling away.
Suitcase thumping against her leg, Carolyn walked back to the terminal. At the door she heard Angeline calling but she didn’t turn around.
As she headed for the ticket counter, the heat of the day fell away. She had a ticket she could turn in and use for another fare. She had twenty dollars in her pocket. They were almost in Ohio, she thought. California couldn’t be all that far.
B.P. Greenbaum is an M.F.A. graduate from the University of Southern Maine, and a full-time creative writing teacher at a public magnet performing arts high school in Willimantic, Connecticut. Her poetry, short stories, and creative nonfiction have been published or are forthcoming in Eclectica, The Alembic, Forge, Hog River Review, Inscape, Verdad, Pearl, Willow Review, Prick of the Spindle and Underwood Review. Her list of awards and honors includes second place for fiction in the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association (CAPA) annual writing contest, and a Teaching Arts Fellowship from the National Arts Teachers Fellowship (NATF) to develop a memoir.