(I meant to have a historical piece about an early and most mysterious resident of San Francisco ready for posting today, but … good intentions and all that, plus we were struck by sudden inspiration for the next Luna City Chronicle … which has been selling nicely and has some nice reviews on Amazon. Yes, there will be at least several more Luna City volumes – especially since the first book ends on a cliff-hanger, we haven’t gotten around to more than a handful of Luna City citizens, and I am convinced more than ever now, that light and amusing trifles are necessary diversions in bleak times.)
Early on an August Sunday morning, Miss Leticia McAllister combed out her long grey hair, rolling and neatly pinning it into an old-fashioned hair-net, and surveyed her appearance in the dressing table mirror. The hat, gloves and scarf that she would wear against the chill – for the sanctuary of the First Methodist Church of Luna City was enthusiastically air-conditioned against the blistering heat of a Texas late summer – all lay in order on the dressing table, next to Miss Letty’s Sunday handbag, which held a fresh handkerchief, her house keys, and the envelope with her weekly offering. Hat, bag, scarf and all carefully matched, and coordinated beautifully with the colors of Miss Letty’s flowered and full-skirted summer dress.
I never had beauty or elegance, Miss Letty told her reflection, with clinical satisfaction – but I could manage chic by paying attention, and I had the brains enough to be charming. Alice was the one for elegance! Oh, my – did she turn heads! Hard to believe it has been seventy-one years to the day. Every man in Schilo’s Delicatessen on Commerce on VJ-Day – they all turned to look at her, as she came in the door. You could have heard a pin drop; I think most of them thought that a movie star had come to San Antonio, but she was really only the chief secretary to an insurance company manager, for all that she was only twenty-four. And he kept trying half-heartedly to seduce her, the wretched little Lothario. She wrote complaining about that to me, all the time that I was in England, and then in France. Alice had a hatpin, though – and she could use it, too.
Miss Letty pinned her hat, with a long, straight old-fashioned pin, which went straight through the bun on the back of her neck, firmly anchoring the straw confection into place. She touched her lips with a pale pink lipstick, and gathered up gloves, scarf and bag, but her thoughts returned to that early afternoon, seventy-one years before, and Miss Alice Everett, stepping through the street door, squinting into the dimness inside; the dark paneled walls, the floor tiled in tiny, hexagonal tiles, all of it old-fashioned even then. Alice was looking for Letty, sitting in a corner booth all by herself, waiting for her brother and Stephen Wyler.
“Letty, sweetie – you look wonderful!” Alice exclaimed, hurrying between the tables, flashing a brilliant smile at the nearest waiter. “Oh, it’s simply divine, seeing you again! Tell me – did you buy that hat in Paris! You must have – there isn’t anything half so chic at Joske’s!”
“No – Bonwit-Tellers’ in New York, on my way through,” Letty rose from the banquet seat, and the two of them exchanged an embrace. “There wasn’t anything in Paris worth buying. Just desperate refugees, too many Allied troops, and guilty collaborators hoping that everyone else had suddenly developed amnesia.”
“But it’s all over, now,” Alice said, with a sigh of happy rapture. “The war – and all that awfulness; no one in the office can get any work done, for the excitement, so Mr. Tradescent just told us to take a holiday. I have the rest of the day off! So let’s have a lunch with your brother and his pal, and then let’s all do something exciting, even if it is just walking along Commerce Street, looking at all the happy faces.” She stripped off her gloves, beaming expectantly at Letty. “I expect that you will be coming home for good, now. You looked so brave in your Red Cross uniform, though. Will you miss all the excitement?”
“No,” Letty answered, for there hadn’t been much excitement, really. Just ward after ward full of hospital beds draped in clean white sheets, full of men with broken bodies, broken spirits, and broken hearts. And after that it was displaced persons, poor skeletal shadows of the humans they had been, clad in striped rags, stumbling barefoot along muddy, rutted roads. “So much agony; I will not miss it in the least.”
“Well, you did your part,” Alice said, bracingly. “You are ever so much braver than I am – I can’t stand the sight of blood, or someone being sick, so I wouldn’t have been any good at all. I am envious!” And she looked at Letty with such openhearted affection that Letty was reminded again of why they were fast friends – from the moment they had met at the Texas State College for Women on the first day of fall term of 1939, right up until the day that Alice died in 2005 – still elegant, perfectly groomed, and complaining about the color of the hospital gowns.
The thing about true heart-friends, Miss Letty thought, carefully negotiating the stairs from the back porch of the McAllister residence – is that they look at you, see and believe the best that you are, without reservation.
Seventy-one years. She was a little early. Chris Mayall’s little red coupe was still parked in front of the old carriage-house. Miss Letty shook her head; the dear boy was obviously still primping. Young men did have their vanity.
“So, tell me about your brother’s best pal,” Alice said, as they sat in Schilo’s on that momentous day, with the sound of impromptu victory parades going up and down the street outside. Letty ordered soft drinks, which had been brought by the attentively-hovering waiter; ice-cold root beer, so cold that the frost was thick on the outside of the thick glass mug. “Army Air Corps, you said – is he handsome and dashing?”
“That goes without saying,” Letty replied, briefly amused. “They are all handsome and dashing … it’s the uniform, you know. But you have met Douglas. He was already serving in 1942. Stephen didn’t sign up until last year when he finished with his degree, and then he was training in transports. We grew up more or less together. Honestly, Alice – he was like another brother.”
Miss Letty kept it forever in her heart that Stephen Wyler had once jokingly proposed marriage to her, the summer of the year they were both seventeen, with a crowd of other teenagers swimming in the deep pool in the bend of the San Antonio River, below where the Grant’s goat farm would eventually be established.
“Hey, Letty – we can do it!” He said, smiling as he walked carefully out along a dead and sun-bleached log, which had come down in a flood year, and deeply embedded in the river-bank. They had been taking turns, diving off the end of the log into the deepest part of the pool. “You and I – we like each other fine – and won’t that set all the old hens to gossiping!”
“Ridiculous!” Letty splashed water at him. “I’ve known you forever – it would be like marrying Doug!”
“All right, but I won’t ask again,” Stephen replied and Letty snorted, “Promises, promises!” He cannon-balled into the water with an almighty splash, and everyone laughed, and there was an end to it, for they both went away to different colleges the following year, and then the war began. And now the war was over, with an abruptness that left everyone dizzy with happiness and relief. Stephen was twenty-four, Doug twenty-six. Because of this all-of-a-sudden, newfangled, and amazingly powerful bomb dropping on two cities that practically no one had heard of ever before, Doug and Stephen and hundreds of thousands of other young men were assured of living to be another year older. And for that, Miss Letty would be grateful for all the rest of her own life.
“Is that them?” Alice Everett had said, on that day in Schilo’s Delicatessen, as the street door opened, and two men stepped in from the dazzle of sunshine outside – two handsome young men, gallant in Army ‘pinks’, with silver aviator wings on their chests. “Oh, my – I do believe that I am in love already!”
Letty had made a brief ‘tisk’ of mild disapproval at that, but upon seeing the dazzled expression on Stephen Wyler’s face, and the delicate blush on Alice’s – she recognized a certain truth at once; there was such a thing as love at first sight, and no brief affection, for it lasted a full and devoted sixty years.
Now Miss Letty waited on the back porch of the McAllister house, leaning on the cane that she barely needed, as Chris Mayall trotted briskly down the outside stairs from his apartment, in the old carriage-house, car keys in hand.
(“You must go with me,” Alice could barely contain the sobs, that day in 2004, calling Letty on the telephone from San Antonio. “They’ve moved him to a ward at Brooke – You know how I feel about hospitals – but I simply must be there when he wakes up. Petty Officer Mayall was J.W.’s best friend, he was beside him when … it happened. That poor boy has no family at all – certainly none out here who can visit …”)
“All ready?” Chris said, opening the passenger-side door with a flourish. He helped Miss Letty on the last step, and into the little red coupe. “I’ll have to bring you home straightaway afterwards, though – I’m running a half-marathon in Beeville this afternoon. It’s not one of those big races, but I’d like to have it under my belt when I start competing in the fall.”
“You are serious about this, aren’t you?” Miss Letty mused, as the little red coupe pulled out onto the road. “Have you thought about getting one of those special blade-running prosthetics? “
“It is a thought, Miss Letty,” Chris mused. Miss Letty thought that yes, he would have been thinking about it. Running marathon races must be awfully hard on his regular prosthesis.
“Let me look into it,” she said. “And I’ll see what I can do. After all – I have been with the Red Cross a very long time. I know people.”