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Letter the Fifth
Telegrams from Mavis Brinkley to Antoinette Charleton
Dec. 18, ‘48
DO NOT GO DINNER. COULD BE BAD MAN. STUPID GIRL. DARN PHONE CO.
Dec. 18, ‘48
PLEASE DO NOT GO DINNER. SEND MESSAGE WHEN RECEIVED.
Dec. 18, ‘48
TONI. CALL ME FROM PAYPHONE. DO NOT GO DINNER.
Dec. 18, ‘48
IM SORRY TONI.
From Antoinette Charleton to Mavis Brinkley
December 18, 1948
As a token of my good morals and magnificent patience, I am not going to start off this letter by calling you unmentionable things. I would be justified, but I will not. My intention is to lay out the events of this day in the exact order in which they came to me, that you might receive the full thrust of their awfulness. Your helpful telegrams, by-the-by, did not come into my hands until just now.
I woke at nine thirty-five this morning. It is Saturday. My luxury day. I rolled over and twitched the curtain open to see what sort of day we had outside. Out the window, Un-John’s office was empty, the room darkened, the dear old chair deserted.
Saturday! I felt for a moment as if I’d been betrayed. Why must mankind leave the office for home? Why must the weekend happen at all? Why could my Un-John not live forever on display so I might enjoy watching him struggle for words, blotting out mistakes with the precious chalk-bottle? You see what a cruel creature misfortune has made me.
Upon quieter, wider-awake reflection as I brushed my teeth, I realized that it was better this way. My nerves would not have survived a vis a vis encounter with Un-John after sending my invitation. Would he come? He would. He would not. I rode a see-saw of decision all morning.
So the day went much as Saturdays usually do, except that I spent an entire hour on my nails. An hour, Mavis! And for what? You know for what.
Diane knocked at my door at four-thirty. I opened it far too quickly because I had been anticipating this moment since noon, when I’d tried (and failed) to eat a lunch of oysters and soda-crackers.
She grinned. “Ready to turn glam?”
This is not precisely a flattering thing to be asked since it suggests one was far from glamorous beforehand, but it is Diane; one cannot be offended for long by her good-humored brusqueness. She’s a writer. I think it’s their constitution.
“Careful you don’t take off my eyebrows,” I warned. “I hate drawn-on brows. What if they smudge?”
Diane took possession of me as if I’d been a cart-horse and she an old country crone and steered me to the couch.
“Just sit there and let me riffle through your belongings.”
“I thought I’d wear the blue chiffon,” I called from my perch on the sofa to where she stood bent in half over my trunk.
Diane took out my favorite dress, held it up to the light, and frowned. “It’s the Willard. You can’t wear blue chiffon.”
From the bottom left-hand corner of the trunk she removed my black wool dress. “Do you have nice collarbones?”
I supposed I had some sort of collarbones and told her that they weren’t, to my knowledge, especially remarkable either way.
“Well, it’s a boat-neck. It’ll suit. Come on, goose.”
So that is how I found myself arrayed in a black wool dress with my collarbones (nice or not) showing just above the gently draped edge. Diane took me in hand again and did something extraordinary to my face and another extraordinary thing to my hair until, at six-thirty PM, I looked in the mirror at a vastly improved Toni Charleton.
Diane hugged my shoulder from behind. “You look like a million bucks.”
I turned my head this way and that and enjoyed the rare moment of vanity. Do you feel pretty all the time, Mavis? It’s an alien sensation to me. Previously, I had worried more than I liked to admit that Un-John would pass me by if he was not John Out-the-Window and already in love with me. Now, that fear vanished like a bunny in a hat. He would not pass me by. I looked past presentable.
“Say, Diane, aren’t you coming? You’ve got five minutes before we have to run!”
“Just a sec.”
Diane performed a feat I never hope to witness again in my life. She grabbed her pocketbook from the hook near the front door, dashed into my bedroom, and emerged again a second later in a dark purple dress. For two minutes she glared into the mirror, applying mascara and lipstick and powder and rouge with her arms going like windmills. At six thirty-five, she turned back around, eyes sparkling.
“Golly,” I said again.
“Now come on! We’ll be late.”
A taxi took us the hop-and-skip to the Willard Inter-Continental and dropped us off in a pool of doormen. Down Pennsylvania Avenue, lights winked from the White House, nearly lost in the glitter of the gorgeously-arrayed Hotel.
I would have paused to take it all in, but Diane, business-like as usual, pressed forward and was lost to me through the revolving doors. We had established beforehand that Diane would find a quiet corner in which to observe me, so I did not worry about her. I took one last breath of the snapping air and made it through the round doors without tripping. A triumph.
Inside, the Willard was even more beautiful than I had remembered it. Christmastide showed her at her finest and drew out every piece of gilt and marble, mosaic and gold. In an alcove, a women’s choir sang Christmas carols while waiters and gorgeous people thrummed in a rhythmless dance. The giant tree in the middle sparkled with glass baubles and I shrank toward it and away from the a laughing miss in sequined dress and her flushed attendant.
Seven o’clock found the Willard looking well.
I tried to arrange my face in a look of pleasant expectation and recognition. So many faces. So many glamorous people. Every corner rang with the report of stiletto heels and merry laughter. Two flutes of champagne aired on a low table before a man with a Germanic face and his female companion. She tipped her head to one side, harkening to the carolers, then moved her fingers in the motion of a bow.
An orchestra member, I thought. Then I realized, Mavis, that I was supposed to be looking for my Johns.
It was difficult. More difficult than I had thought. On every face was the same expectant, friendly look as my own. Christmas is ever a time for meetings and partings and sudden encounters. Strangers beamed at strangers with the near-audible thought of, “Perhaps we aren’t friends but we easily could be.”
That’s him. A tall man in a black suit turned a full circle looking for someone. I emerged from under the glittering shadow of the Christmas tree, into the pulsing light as the carols like wine ran through my blood.
“Here I am,” I felt like calling, but stood fast.
The man turned. His dark eyes narrowed into a smile. A special smile meant just for one person. He stepped forward and the smile deepened as he approached me. Indeed, Mavis, I had opened my mouth to speak the name he had given me to use, had half-stepped into his path. He brushed past me, his shoulder knocking my chin.
“Pardon me,” he murmured without giving me a glance.
I could have cried, Mavis, with frustration and shame. It was not Un-John. How was I to recognize him with nothing but a silhouette for a likeness? I edged toward the carolers and dipped a mug of cider from the steaming punch-bowl on a marble table.
This I raised to my lips, intent to let him approach me next time. My eyes flickered over the riot of glistening colors and landed upon one figure in emerald green, quieter than the rest. My heart thudded and stopped with a sickening silence.
I knew that figure. I knew those garments. I knew the face, penitent and concerned under a wealth of black hair.
And I felt like a fool because I knew you, Mavis.And in your hands was the fifth gift.