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Vol. 5, No. 4

Watermelon Days
by Tom McNeal

     Early one August evening in Philadelphia in 1926, Doreen Sullivan paid her fifteen-cent admission to the Aldine at Nineteenth and Chestnut. The attraction was Beau Geste with Ronald Colman. Doreen was early. She lingered over the encased posters in the downstairs lobby (for a long moment she stared frankly into the eyes of Ramon Novarro), then took one of the curving marble staircases to the upper lobby and sat down in a brocaded armchair. No one else was there. Doreen lit her own cigarette, something she was rarely required to do in a public place, and from her handbag unfolded a letter she’d already read three or four times. It was a funny and disturbing letter from Lulu Schmidt, her sometimes best friend who almost two years before had run off to New Orleans with Clarence Nottingham and had not been heard from since.
     It began, Dear Dory—if you receive this you must be at the same old address living with Aggie and still wasting away in Phil-a-delph-eye-aye! I got disentangled thank you from Clarence Nottingham (a big drip and how!) and you’ll never guess where I am now Yankton South Dakota—Ha! This town is full of hoot and holler—you’ve got bridge builders and train men and best of all cowboys and even a few Indians but now they dress just like us. Here’s the good part though—the males outnumber the girls 3 to 1! which means they walk up to you and tell you how you look like Lilian Gish only more so! Ha! The letter went on for three skittering pages. It ended with Come see for yourself Dory, there’s jobs and men galore who if they think I’m Lilian Gish will think you’re Greta Garbo Ha! She’d signed, Your everlasting friend Lulu Schmidt.
     People had begun to mass in the upper lobby, their talk light and expectant. Beyond the auditorium doors the pipe organ was playing. A boy materialized beside Doreen and said, “How ‘bout I escort you in?” He was hatless with his hair slicked back and parted down the middle. He was neither good-looking nor bad. He looked, in fact, more or less like all the other boys Doreen saw every day. Coolly, she said, “No, thank you, I’m waiting for someone,” which was true in only the most abstract sense, but she didn’t give the boy another look.
     Thirty minutes into the movie, Doreen went out to the lobby for popcorn. When she got to the counter she was surprised to find not only that she didn’t want popcorn but didn’t want to return to the movie. She drifted outside. Normally Doreen came out of the movie house refreshed, and the lights and voices and laughter of the street would slip into her bloodstream like alcohol, but tonight everything seemed worn out by familiarity. The warm night air smelled faintly sour. She wore a thin, sleeveless dress over a light camisole, but the stares of men, which she usually craved, had no effect on her. There were places to go—there were always places to go—but she felt only like returning home, where Aggie would likely be entertaining one of what she called her gents.
     Doreen had grown up believing her mother to be dead and Aggie to be her older sister, but one day when Doreen was fourteen she came upon a box of documents that included her own birth certificate. The space for the father’s name was blank. Agnes Lee Sullivan was listed as the mother. When confronted with the document, Aggie didn’t blush or stammer. She said, “Why, you little snoop!” And then, “Well, now you know.” And finally, “It’s kind of funny, this morning you didn’t have a mother and, presto, tonight you do!” (In truth, little had changed—Doreen still called Aggie Aggie.)
     When Doreen stepped into the flat tonight, there was a man’s hat on the center table. It was a snap-brim fedora with a nicely creased crown. Doreen picked it up and did what Aggie always did when handed a coat or hat to hang. She ran her fingers over the material—soft felt—and checked the label—LORD & TAYLOR. Not Saks Fifth Avenue, Aggie would’ve said, but not bad.
     Doreen glanced at Aggie’s door. It was closed. If she waited for it, she would hear a laugh. In men, Aggie looked for what she called the three m’s—married, moneyed, and merry—and she gazed upon the boys Doreen brought home with a frozen smile of disapproval. Aggie had produced the same smile a few weeks before when Doreen told her she’d taken a new job at Kresge. “Managed by a man and staffed by girls?” Aggie asked. Doreen’s cheeks pinkened and Aggie pressed her advantage. “Twenty cents an hour?” she said, and Doreen, glancing away, had murmured, “Fifteen.”
     Doreen used the bathroom and went to her room. She double-bolted the door from within (surprisingly often the merry men returning from the bathroom would try the wrong door). The room felt close. Doreen shed everything but her camisole and slip, switched on a black table fan, and opened wide the room’s two windows. She pulled back the bed cover and lay atop the sheets with three pillows plumped behind her bare back. She lit a cigarette, drew the smoke deep into her lungs and held it for a moment before exhaling, reaching for her handbag and again unfolding Lulu Schmidt’s funny letter.

 

~

When Doreen Sullivan started work at WBDY in downtown Yankton three weeks later, she brought with her from Philadelphia an attunement to fashion that the citizens of Yankton had rarely seen outside of magazines—her bobbed hair was marcelled into deep horizontal waves, she wore a wide ribbon in her felt cloche, and she sported a scarf with a King Tut motif. She also used a scarlet lipstick to form her lips into a fresh cupid’s bow that both her male and female co-workers, privately and for different reasons, found unsettling. Shortly after Doreen arrived, a station employee named Monty Longbaugh came in early one morning and very slightly repositioned his desk so he would have an unobstructed view of her as she worked.

     In the early twenties, Monty Longbaugh had not quite made a name for himself as a cowboy balladeer and then had looked around for stabler employment. For the past two years he’d been reading the WBDY weather and farm reports in a consoling voice perfectly suited to solemn stories. In 1925, when he started at the station, Yankton was a river town of just under six thousand, set out on tableland that gently sloped down to the Missouri, the town’s uncertain southern boundary. Monty liked the town. He liked living in one of its neat, white-fenced neighborhoods, and he liked working in one of the stout red stone buildings that dotted its commercial district.
     The Stapleton Building had housed the Birney Seed & Nursery Company since 1913, and it was Henry Birney, the founder’s son, who had grasped the happy commercial implications of radio transmission and quickly purchased the license and frequency designation for WBDY, built its facilities on the Stapleton Building’s third floor, and, when the station’s transmitters were fortified to five hundred watts, had himself hit upon its first slogan: “WBDY, Your Big Buddy on the Great Plains.”
     Weekday mornings, the station aired a show called Neighbor Macy, the Farmwife’s Companion, hosted by an exaggeratedly amiable woman who dispensed budget-stretching recipes and practical domestic tips. She also sold a number of household products available only by mail order from WBDY. For the past four months, and with growing boredom, Doreen had been processing these orders. One day she noticed a red envelope among the shifting sackful of white. It was addressed to Neighbor Macy, Mail Order, but off to the side of the address, neatly printed, were the words Attention Doreen. Doreen slid her letter knife under the sealed flap. On the enclosed sheet of paper—also red—were the words I must talk to you before another sun sets. Signed, Monty Longbaugh. When Doreen looked up and searched out Monty Longbaugh sitting at the far reach of two dozen desks, he was staring back with an expression that somehow seemed both hopeful and forlorn. Doreen had seen the look before. Nothing important had ever come of it, but it had been the source of some nice presents.
     They walked down the street to Wilkemeyer’s Drugs. It was cold. In the street, wheel tracks ridged the frozen mud. He ordered coffee and she sipped lemon Coke from a glass that was soon printed with lipstick. In a tight voice, he asked her about the weather and why she’d come to Yankton and how she liked living there and what her relations thought of it. Doreen kept her responses breezy. She told him if it got any muddier she thought the whole town would slip into the Missouri and she’d only come to Yankton because her friend Lulu Schmidt had written letters singing its praises but then two weeks after she got here Lulu Schmidt went back to a man in New Orleans named Clarence Nottingham, who, it turned out, was Lulu’s husband! She said her sister Aggie in Philadelphia was her only living relative and that her sister Aggie thought Yankton was just across the crusty bog from Timbuktu. After the last of these answers, Doreen gave Monty Longbaugh a saucy smile and said, “Was that the reason you needed to talk to me before another sun sets?”
     Monty Longbaugh shoved his coffee away. He spread his hands and ironed them along his thighs, twice, which made Doreen think of a comic movie where a rural type was about to go after the greased pig at a state fair. Monty cleared his voice and lowered his eyes. “Well,” he said in a low voice, “it’s like all my life up until now I’ve been sleepwalking, and now I’m wide awake.”
     Monty Longbaugh lifted his eyes and allowed them to rest fully on hers. They were black-brown and their wet glisten made her think of a staring deer. None of the three m’s applied to him and the m for money never would. Aggie would’ve said, “Would you excuse me half a half a minute?” and left without looking back. Doreen said, “What was it that woke you up?”
     His gaze broke from hers and shifted to the plate-glass window that gave onto the street. To Doreen, his long smooth pure white face seemed suddenly and shockingly handsome. “Why, you were, of course,” he said. “What woke me up was you.”
     The sauciness slipped from Doreen’s smile. She didn’t know what to say. She said, “I never expected to be anybody’s Prince Charming before.”
     He turned and gave her an open smile. “Well, I never knew I’d been asleep,” he said. He’d reclaimed his normal voice. It was a nice voice, low and assuring, his radio voice.
     She leaned forward. She spoke in a whisper. She said, “Wait till I kiss you. Then you’ll know what waking up is.”

 

~

When Monty proposed marriage five weeks later, Doreen thought, I don’t know, and said yes. “Next Sunday?” Monty said. Doreen nodded. The union was witnessed only by the officiating judge’s wife. Monty made the informal public announcements, often with Doreen standing uneasily nearby. She kept the news from Aggie—she knew the kind of judgments her return questions would contain—and was relieved when their already haphazard correspondence ceased completely.

      To Doreen, the marital state seemed different, but not unpleasant, and she did her best to do exactly what Aggie had never done. She made curtains for their rented house (crooked, though she hemmed them twice) and painted its dingy rooms (in the morning she noticed that drips had hardened on walls and trim boards alike). In the spring she spaded a garden, but the carrots bent as if they’d hit metal and slugs tattered the lettuce. Winter nights, she tried to teach herself knitting, then began weaving rag rugs, which were homely but at least freed her from the reading of unfathomable directions. Doreen began to realize that she missed going to work. She missed going to dances. She missed putting on her camisoles and beaded chiffon dresses and feeling goose bumps in the cold. She began to hate housework and laundry and cooking horrid meals her husband indiscriminately praised. In the first weeks of their courtship, she had loved sitting naked inside Monty’s old wool robe and listening to him sing his cowboy tales—“Little Joe the Wrangler,” “The Strawberry Roan”—but he had proven a heedless, exuberant lover, one who, even when he chanced upon some happy ministration, seemed never to remember it on later occasions, and over time Doreen had grown first indifferent and then secretly hostile to the sentimental stories his ballads contained.
     Two winters passed, one longer than the next. The stock market crash meant little to most citizens of Yankton (few had had money to invest), but it was the latest in a long line of bad news stretching back almost ten years, the cumulative effect of which Monty reported in his daily farm report. He might try a joke or anecdote afterwards, but when he reported Chicago wheat at ninety-seven cents a bushel or feeder calves at a nickel a pound, his voice was low and somber.
     In the third summer of their marriage, a record drought hit the northern plains. The wind blew. Dust settled over fields and houses. Gardens, lawns, and pastures browned. Temperatures shot up and seemed not to fall. At night families laid out blankets on Ohlman Hill hoping for some refreshment. One night when Monty and Doreen both lay awake in their screened sleeping porch, he rose to look at the thermometer and then went to the kitchen. When he came back he said, “It’s 2:40 a.m. and eighty-six degrees.” After that they didn’t speak. He’d wrapped some chipped ice in a wetted washcloth. He lifted her gown and began damping her ankles and legs with the cool cloth. The pleasantness of this surprised her. She closed her eyes and lifted her buttocks so he could push the nightgown past and made murmuring sounds of a type Monty had never before heard. The hot spell continued, and several other nights Doreen, without opening her eyes, would in a whisper ask him to go fetch his iced cloth and he, as if in a dream, would begin moving about.
     Doreen became pregnant. She told no one, and didn’t quite believe it herself until the fact became undeniable. When finally she announced the news to Monty, he was so pleased that his expression collapsed, his eyes moistened, and he had to turn away in embarrassment. This had a strange effect on Doreen. “I’ll need to slow down,” she said. “I’ll need to do less around the house.”
     “I can cook,” Monty said. The sudden expansion of his spirits nearly seemed visible. “I know a couple of pretty good camp meals.”
     Doreen almost felt Aggie’s presence in the room. She seated herself carefully. “And the cleaning,” she said. “Someone will have to clean.”
     The town’s two baby doctors were Carlton Johnston, a genial but clumsy man, and Jennie Murphy, whose custom of presenting herself in men’s suits made some citizens standoffish, but Doreen preferred the gynecological intrusions of an eccentric woman to a butterfingered man, so it was Dr. Jennie Murphy who delivered the baby in the early morning hours of April 5, 1931. Toward the end, between coaxings to push, Dr. Murphy repeatedly muttered, “That’s the stuff!” and “Now we’re cooking!” When finally the baby was expelled, it was taken quickly away by the nurse while Dr. Murphy did some stitching and daubing, then removed the soiled bedding. A minute or two later she returned, adjusted her suspenders, buttoned her sleeves, and slipped into her suit coat. She laid a hand on Doreen’s forehead to check for temperature. Then, making to go, she looked down at her patient and said, “You did splendidly, Doreen,” which for no reason whatsoever made Doreen want to cry. Monty returned with the baby swaddled and pinkly clean. “Girl,” he announced, beaming. “A dandy little girl.” Doreen looked at the baby’s squinchy face, wept hopefully, and fell into a hard sleep. Some indeterminate time later, she awakened confused. The room was dark and the windows were rattling gently. In a faraway room a baby was crying. The clock said one-fifteen, but the dark was not the darkness of night. Doreen called suddenly for Monty and after a time a nurse appeared. She closed the door quickly behind her to muffle the sound of the baby’s crying. “Where’s Monty?” Doreen asked.
     “He’s gone to the station on account of the storm,” the nurse said. She was stout, middle-aged, and veiny in the cheeks and nose. “It’s terrible dust. Middle of an afternoon and the autos outside are passing with their lights on. Mr. Longbaugh on the radio called it a black blizzard and I thought, Well that’s close enough.” The window glass shuddered. A moment later, Doreen became again aware of the dim, stretched-out cries of a baby. The nurse said, “It’s a funny storm. Edna Arlene don’t like it.”
     “Edna Arlene?”
     “Your baby. Mr. Longbaugh said that was her name, after his deceased mother.” She waited a second. “Should I bring the baby in now?”
     The nurse thought Doreen would say yes, and so did Doreen, but when she opened her mouth she heard herself say, “Not for a bit yet.”
     “You just rest then,” the nurse said, and when she came close to arrange Doreen’s bedcovers she brought with her the faint smell of liquor. Doreen closed her eyes. Outside, behind the wind, there was a steady drone that became a kind of silence.

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