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Letter the Eighth
December 21, 1948
I know you’re woefully curious about tonight’s cocoa party but the thing is, it hasn’t happened yet. I’m writing to let you know that I intend to be a bit more careful over John Out-the-Window than I have in the last week. You see, while I now have it on good authority that he is the best sort of person, how is that any guarantee that he will love me? You see my dilemma: just because you find a certain person delightful is not any sort of promise that said person will find you so. At least not in my experience. I almost always fall in love with impossibilities.
Sure, I have a sort of connection to him via the ridiculous circumstances under which we met but you do realize that a man of his good cheer can’t be friendless. I would guess he has had twenty-six or twenty-seven years in which to gather a giant array of friends, of whom I am now a very small part. Since last night’s interview was strictly confined to discussion of the last seven days, we never got around to personal details. He must know I am single, but is he? And if he is, what makes me so certain he’ll choose me as the person with whom he wants to grow old? He probably will not be certain, so I’ve decided to tell my heart to shut up and approach this relationship strictly on the Platonic level.
This whole thing has grown my common sense by leaps and bounds.
I will be sure to let you know the outcome.
Well, he comes in fifteen minutes. Diane should be here sooner than that if her manuscript hasn’t eaten her alive. It’s the most gigantic thing. I can’t imagine where she puts it when she wants it out of sight. I took my pen back up just now to let you know that John Out-the-Window has already failed me in this one respect: he hasn’t kept up the tradition of a gift in the post.
You see, he isn’t the stuff dreams are made of.
I can hear you laughing all the way from Frederick, Maryland. Please don’t be so omniscient. It’s unnerving.
I am so glad I decided to be stoic about this, otherwise the events of this evening would probably have upset me.
Diane arrived two seconds after I closed up my letter to you and put it in the desk. She scuttled in and closed the door as if we were conspirators in some plot to leak State secrets.
“Well, he’s coming.”
“Didn’t he say he’d wait for your signal?”
“I think he was teasing.”
“You’d better check.”
So I went to the window and looked outside. It had begun to snow: chubby, clumsy flakes like baby cotton-balls stumbling down the dark sky. A few people were out in it, hurrying to the trains that out take them home or round the corner to the more enthralling streets for a night out. I watched them a moment with the chilly pane under my palms and found John’s window: four floors down, three windows over. It looked brighter than the others as usual. I think John’s goodwill-toward-men helps run the electricity. He should get a raise.
Diane squeezed my shoulder. She is short and has to tip-toe to see over me. “Is he looking?”
He was and I tried to talk my heart out of racing against my rib-cage. I raised my hand. Then I waved and nodded, unsure how to summon a person. He would know what I meant. It was his idea anyway.
He waved back, jumped up from his chair, and pulled on his jacket, then saluted out the window and walked stiffly to the door like a nutcracker.
“What a loony,” Diane said appreciatively.
We had little to do until John arrived. I wiped the tiny stove-top once more so it would look less stained and repositioned the miniscule saucepan. The cocoa, sugar, milk and vanilla were sitting at the ready. My trio of chicken mugs eye-balled us from the yellow gingham cloth I’d thrown across the tiny table for the occasion.
“It’s all ready.”
I tried not to meet Diane’s eyes. She took my hands and squeezed them. “I am in a constant state of awe over how perfectly your life events happen.”
“Perfectly? One of my good friends concocted a fake romance and nearly gave me a broken heart for Christmas!”
“But he’s coming over, isn’t he?”
“And what’s a story without some twists and turns? It’s called plot. All the good books have it.”
I told her she was a nut-case and she laughed and told me I was what they’d call a reluctant hero. I wondered what she was (the batty side-kick?) but before Diane had time to answer, a strong knock came on my door.
“It’s him!” I squeaked.
“I won’t do it for you.”
I tip-toed to the door, pinched some color into my cheeks, and turned the clasp of my locket to its proper place behind my neck. Then with effort, I calmly opened the door to find...
“There’s a gennelmun downstairs for you. Says you’ve invited him up f’ar cocoa?”
“That’s right. What is it to you?”
“I run a respectable house here, that’s what ‘tis to me.”
“I’m sorry but... what on earth is the matter?”
“‘Tis gennelmun visiting at night what’s the matter. Would yair mother like it? No. Would yair father like it? No. Will I allow it? No.”
“Mrs. Simmons,” I said patiently. “I don’t see how it is any of your business.”
“It’s my apartment building, it’s my business.”
“It is not your apartment building,” I protested. “You’re just the lobby-lady!”
“Is that any reason to go invitin’ gennelmun into your parlor at night?”
I drew myself tall with a bit of the Mavis gravitas. “Mrs. Simmons.”
She shrank back into herself.
“You cast aspersions. Mr. John Garribault is coming up to my apartment whether you like it or not. We are to drink cocoa.”
“I’ll bet you aire.”
It makes no sense, Mavis, and I’m certain you are in the farthest stage of laughter, but her words struck a fire inside me. I stomped my foot and growled with fury.
Diane, my guardian angel, came to the rescue: “Mrs. Simmons, your job entitles you to Gestapo the lobby. If there is a man in the lobby, you may insist he leave if there are rules against gentlemen stepping through lobbies. You will allow him, however, to exit via the stairway to this room. Now shoo!”
And would you believe it, Mrs. Simmons vanished like pipe-smoke. The next knock on the door really was John Out-the-Window. Over coffee, he had possessed the familiarity belonging to a dream you’ve dreamed before. Standing on my raggedy mat grinning with his trilby in hand , he positively belonged. Like the cross hung over my bedroom door and the calendar perpetually stuck at January 1939 (because I liked the illustration), John Garribault belonged. Those things had moved with and been part of me my whole life. John Out-the-Window seemed to be made of the same stuff.
You can tell I was not doing so well with the Platonic Relationship mantra.
“Come in,” I said and took his trilby with reverence to a place I’d prepared on the coat-tree.
He stood first on one foot and then the other. “Well, well, well.”
“I’m Diane.” She extended a smile and her right hand.
John took her hand in his own, grinning. “The savior of us all.”
“Perhaps a little. A very little.”
“But if you’d never written, I would never have known about poor Toni’s plight.”
Diane tossed her head and laughed. “Now that’s very true.”
“Thanks for writing.” He looked at me, and then back at Diane and dropped her hand. “You’ve given me something besides writing to think about.”
“How is that going? Toni and I saw you battle the dreaded Block.”
“It’s slow, I’ll admit.”
And John and Diane fell into a long chat full of terms I could not possibly understand that seemed to discuss the differences between plot as a novelist versus plot as a journalist and theories pertaining to both and lah-dee-dah. I could not help reflecting that Ferdinand Pierce would enjoy himself immensely.
This was not exactly how I’d pictured the evening going. Diana was doing a bit more of the charming while I was employed making the cocoa. Of course it is my kitchen and my guests so who did I expect to perform these domestic duties? Still, as the cocoa powder and sugar bubbled together on the stovetop, a green sensation weaseled its way into my chest.
Diane’s smile was gorgeous, her eyes starry, her clothing impeccable. She said something clever and John laughed with her. Not at her or for her or for himself, but with her. About things I know nothing of.
“Cocoa’s ready!” I snapped, then quickly covered my bad temper with, “Would you do me the honor of sitting at my table?”
John held out Diane’s chair for her, then asked if he could assist me.
“No thanks,” I said.
Of course I meant the exact opposite. I wished he would pour the cocoa for us and pull out my chair for me and put it back in and I could feel the closeness of his concerned self wanting to be perfectly sure that everyone was cozy and content.
“Oh John,” I mouthed under my breath, and passed the meanest-looking chicken-mug to Diane by way of retribution.
I flopped a stack of cheap cloth napkins into the center of the table, dipped a mugful of cocoa for myself last of all, and scooted into place. I sighed and Diane fingered the lip of her mug with a happy look. John looked at both of us, then laughed.
“Shall I say grace?”
We bowed our heads, strange but contenting thing to do over drinks, and John prayed:
“Dear Lord, thank you for these girls and this cocoa. Thanks for Christmas and plans-gone-wrong and windows to look out of. Please bless Mavis and let her learn to mind her own business. Same goes for the wild Irish warrior downstairs. In Your Son’s name, Amen.”
“And three cheers for the eighth day of Christmas!” Diane added, raising her mug.
John made a face over his sip of cocoa. “Gosh it’s hot. I almost forgot! Miss Toni...” He dug in his jacket pocket and brought out a little harlequin-colored box.
“Have to keep tradition for the sake of the children.” He winked and handed the box to me.
“Oh, John!” I said (aloud, this time).
“It’s kind of cheating,” he admitted. “But what else is a guy supposed to do for ‘eight maids a’milking?’”
Buried under gold and silver tissue paper I found a little glass-fronted ornament. Inside, John had clipped out and pasted an illustration of a group of girls drinking milkshakes at a soda-fountain counter. There were four of them and their reflections laughed at me from the mirror behind the soda-jerk’s back.
I turned the ornament so Diane could appreciate it and blinked back tears. The illustration was identical, though in smaller form, to the calendar page I so treasured. I had never had sisters and the little painting had for years been my dream-world.
Diane looked at the ornament and laughed. “Gosh, you’re a bad cheater.”
John shrugged and his cheeks pinked. “Yeah, well, at least I tried.”
“I think it’s wonderful.” I pressed the ornament into my palm for courage. “Does anyone want to sing carols?”
We sat for the next hour and a half singing carol after carol. Of course I don’t own any song-books so we sang the words we knew and fudged the rest and generally had a divine time. Diane has a lovely alto and John can sing a shaky baritone if he clears his throat beforehand. I think we sounded delightful. At ten-fifteen, our little party was over.
Diane cleared away first, and for that I was grateful. It made me think she’d finally regained her senses and realized the whole “plot” was sort of failing with her around to take his attention. At last I had a half-moment with John myself.
“Thank you,” I said a little abruptly as I later noticed.
John swung around and clamped his trilby on his head. “For?”
I felt the ornament again and smiled. “Keeping tradition for this little child.”
I rocked on my toes. The clock ticked behind us. “You’re a good man, John Garribault.”
“Oh, it’s a sweet little child. I couldn’t possibly tell it Santa isn’t real.” He smiled encouragingly. “I’m off homeward so don’t stay up at your window looking for me.”
He left and the room seemed naked. John Garribault might not be in love with Diane Luray but I’m confident he isn’t in love with me. After all, his parting words were a gentle warning for a perfectly childish young woman:
“I couldn’t possibly tell it Santa isn’t real.”
Santa is not real, Mavis. I appreciate you trying to tell me otherwise, but I’m tired of being a child. I can be content with John Garribault as a friend. I don’t need anything else.
Oh, my head hurts.
ToniP.S. I went to the window just to prove that there are other interesting things in the world besides John. I was hopelessly bored. Signed, A.C.