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Letter the Fourth
December 17th, 1948
From Mavis Brinkley to Antoinette Charleton
Being you must be exhausting. The route of emotions you’ve run in your last three letters is positively premenstrual (I can imagine the look of horror on your face right now. I did a stint as a nurse in the war. Precious little makes me blush). First we see depression, then euphoria, anxiety, confusion, euphoria again, curiosity, frustration, concern, severe frustration, affection, anxiety again, anxiety, ANXIETY, delight, anxiety, and (oh look!) anxiety. I prescribe a cup of coffee if you can stand the chicken on the side, and a session of deep-breathing.
And I used to think my poodle unbalanced.
That’s the only advice I’ll give for now. Sorry, kiddo. You know how I feel about all men besides Errol Flynn and an obscure errand-fellow named Corky. Speaking of, have you seen Don Juan? Flynn’s dreamy.
From Antoinette Charleton to Mavis Brinkley
December 17, 1948
“Calm down,” you say. I actually do feel calm, which frightens me because I’ve made a huge decision and I oughtn’t to feel calm at all. Let me explain:
I woke up this morning after a night of hideous dreams and was late to work by half an hour. Not an auspicious beginning to the Fourth (Wrong) Day of Christmas. Mr. Pierce was lenient, only because I told him that I’d twisted my ankle, which was true. I just didn’t tell him I had twisted it last week on a manhole cover while buzzing along Independence past the Cannon building trying to keep a well-dressed Hill-Rat in sight. Don’t scold me. I thought it was Congressman Dillbeck’s assistant and I needed to relay a message to his wife. He lectured me on the ill-effects of wearing high-heeled shoes till I could feel my spine atrophying.
ANYWAY MAVIS. When I got home, I found Diane Luray waiting for me in the hall.
“Come here!” she hissed and pulled me into my own apartment.
“What’s the idea?”
“I saw John Out-the-Window.”
My heart stopped, literally stopped, till I panicked over the fact and adrenaline set it ticking again. I gasped out some version of, “You must be pulling my leg,” which I think came as more of a squeak and a flapping of my hands. Sometimes I infuriate myself.
“We knew his delivery times were inconsistent,” Diane said with her breath coming in short, excited puffs, “but I didn’t know how sporadic till I came down at three to go to the corner-store. There he was--a positively gorgeous fellow--sliding this into your box!”
From her pocket, Diane took a flat, silver package. It had a gold ribbon on it just long enough to make a silly-looking bow that had come undone on one side.
“I hid behind the phone boot till he left.”
“His skills in wrapping leave a bit to be desired,” I said in a tone of which you would be proud, Mavis, darling.
Diane told me I was a horrible person and she would open it if I did not. Threatened with that, of course I did. I think I am not entirely avaricious, Mavis, because I didn’t notice the gift at first. What I am now after, these times, are the notes. Today’s did not disappoint:
I realized that the twelve days are now a third of the way finished and it makes me sad. It is your choice, of course, but I hope you will want to meet me when we are through. After all, you do have an extra tea-cup, unless you’ve tripped and smashed it. And see what a gentleman I am? I even provided a cup for the girl upstairs so we could be an awkward trio instead of a scandalous pair. For today’s gift, we have a pun. I hope this isn’t a lame present, but deadlines are pressing and I had very little time to prepare.
P.S. Quarters are useful, aren’t they, at payphones and the like?”
Beneath the card nested four new quarters, silver and brazen in the electric lights overhead.
“The clever man!” Diane breathed.
“He’s teasing you.”
“Teasing me.” It has been a ridiculous fancy of mine to be teased by a man who loves me.
“The ‘four calling birds’ are the eagle. And the calling part, of course, is because he means for you to use them at a payphone. He must know your phone was cut off.”
“But how could he know I forgot to pay my bill?” Did the man know everything? He began to frighten me.
“Maybe he saw you throw the receiver across the room,” she suggested with a laugh. “Anyway, he didn’t say anything was wrong with your phone. You’re acting paranoid.” Diane slumped into my couch and hugged my favorite pillow to herself.
“Why the loony smile?” I asked.
“I think you should force his hand.”
“And do what?”
“Invite Un-John to dinner.”
“I don’t know. The Willard! Why not? It’s a real swinging place this time of year. Carollers, cider, jazz, you name it.” She tossed the pillow away and clasped her hands.
“Come on, Toni. I’ll doll you up and you can have a go at charming him. Look, I saw John Out-the-Window. He has the right build, at least. Tall, dark, handsome. If he is, in fact, Un-John, then I’ll be able to tell you.”
“You’re coming too, now?”
“You wouldn’t deprive me of a chance for a killer plot, would you? If John Out-the-Window is Un-John, he’ll show up. If Un-John is, in fact, his own man, he’ll probably show up too. Send an invitation to Un-John’s office. See what happens. Besides, if he isn’t your admirer, your admirer will be driven batty by seeing you get fancied up for an evening out.”
And that, Mavis, is when the calmness settled in. I went to my desk in a perfectly sensible frame of mind, not at all like an automaton, and wrote an invitation for Un-John to meet me at the Willard Inter-Continental for dinner tomorrow night. Seven sharp. Then Diane delivered it to the lobby of the office building. She has become terribly useful. She said it’s a press club and because she was a writer, she’d be able to convince them it was a perfectly legitimate letter for the employee in the third window, four floors down.
So I’ve invited Un-John to dinner. Maybe I’ve invited John Out-the-Window too. It’s not foolish. At least, not comparatively. We are discussing someone who sends letters to a stranger from a perfectly ridiculous fake name. What could go wrong? Tomorrow night will tell. Goodnight, Mavis. I’m saving these quarters for good luck. Someday Diane might make them famous in one of her books.
Your Perfectly-Calm Friend,