To read Part One, click here.
Letter the Second
December 15th, 1948
Gird your loins. This might be a two-stamp letter. My luck is ever a creature of fickle habits. Could this be the reason I hate cats with a hatred amounting that of yours for polyester? That was a clever line, wasn’t it? Mavis, I do believe you are rubbing off on me yet and I can’t wait till you come back to DC so we can have these chats in person and ditch letter-writing. I’ll get arthritis if this keeps up much longer.
I think we agree I am not stupid. But I am unfortunate in the extreme. When I went into work this morning, I ran straight to the directory and looked up every Diana on my block. “Mary Voted Most Popular Name For Women in America.” You know those headlines? Don’t believe them. There were no less than twenty-three and a half Dianas living nearby. The half-Diana is a “Diane,” but as we cannot insure the accuracy of John Out-the-Window’s spelling powers, I included her. Only one of the lot, however, lives in my building. The half-Diana.
“What are you up to?” Mr. Pierce inquired, tramping into the back room with that heavy tread so peculiar for a tailor.
It never does to lie to Ferdinand Pierce. “I’m trying to find Diana.”
“Diana Lees? It’s her day off.”
Drat. I’d forgotten about the other assistant. “No, Diana who belongs to John Out-the-Window.”
Mr. Pierce took my arm and gently slid me away from the phone. He deposited my unyielding form on the padded bench reserved for waiting husbands.
“I know you don’t go in much for sense, Toni, but could you at least try?”
I felt I must be patient with him, Mavis, for he does hold the key to my independence, being the Keeper of Salaries.
“I have a bit of a mystery on my hands, Mr. Pierce,” I said with as chipper an aspect as I could. “Someone put a package for Diana, no surname, in my mailbox and I need to find who it was really meant for.”
“Just chuck it to that Mrs. Simmons of whom you are ever complaining. Post Office should be able to set it straight.” He rolled and unrolled his tape and slung it across his narrow shoulders.
“No can do. I assume John Out-the-Window to be a made-up name. I suppose he means to be secretive by omitting any sort of address. Hand-delivered, evidently. A twelve days of Christmas affair.”
I begged his pardon.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas don’t start till Christmas Day,” Mr. Pierce said.
I had never heard of such an absurd thing. “That makes no sense.”
He then launched into one of his long, dull, and informative talks about the history of the tradition of the early church of the twelve days of the...Mavis, I began to think my life as prosaic as I have ever thought it after all. What was different about today than any other except that the Diana-disaster had earned me a longer than usual lecture?
“Mr. Pierce, you’re right. Guess the mysterious sender out to brush up on his folklore before trying romance.”
And as Congressman Hylton’s wife swept in at that moment, I had no more time to discuss John Out-the-Window. It’s not that I felt no gratitude toward Mr. Pierce for educating me...I just simmered that I had not known this was so and directed my fury at John Out-the-Window for putting his odious, beautiful gift in the wrong mailbox.
When I got off work, I hurried home, got the gift from my room, and hastened up the stairs to Floor Six.
Diane Luray, read the card on 629B. I knocked, breathed a gusty sigh, and the door turned in.
I faltered momentarily over the petite girl with the blue eyes, pert nose and torrents of brown hair. The hair invoked immediate jealousy, Mavis. You’ve never seen such hair. It’s positively Waterhouse in volume. Not at all fashionable, but HAIR. For all this, the young woman did not look at all like a goddess. No more than I do! I had expected much of the Mavis-slink in her posture. She was, in fact, wrapped to the chin in a gentleman’s silk robe, rather faded.
She grinned at me. “Hello.”
As this was her second response to my idiotic question, I grew awkward. “I’m Antoinette Charleton but you might as well call me Toni. This is for you.” I hurled the gift at her.
Diane caught it without batting a lash. “From you?”
“From John Out-the-Window.”
“Oh. Him.” She turned as if to close the door and my hand shot itself forward.
“Who is he? I’m sorry but I have to know.”
“I don’t have a clue.”
“But you looked so upset I had to say something.”
We mutually blinked, then Diane invited me in for coffee. While sitting on her pink couch, Diane confessed that much as she liked the idea of a secret admirer, even one who was misinformed as to when the Twelve Days of Christmas occur, she did not think the gift was hers by rights.
“Then whose?” I wailed, choking on coffee.
Diane whacked my back and told me to join her at the window. “I know absolutely every person in every window across the way,” she said. “And none of them could possibly be your mysterious sender.”
“It’s a convent school.”
One doesn’t expect to hear plausible excuses as to why a Secret Admirer must be one’s own and not the perfectly adorable girl’s upstairs. I confess I was flattered, though it wasn’t Diane Luray’s fault her cross-street neighbors were nuns.
“So who are your window-people?” she asked. “We ought to start there.”
I felt inferior and replied that I had no window-people.
“You mean you never look at people out your window?”
“Isn’t that technically spying?”
Diane pushed aside her curtains with a laugh. “All Western Civilization knows about drapes. If they don’t use ‘em it’s strictly their fault.”
You will be shocked, Mavis, to hear that this did not shock me at all as much as it should have.
“Come on. Let’s see who this John Out-the-Window could be,” she said.
So Diane and I crept down to my place as if we were grammar-school friends. Once in, I turned off the light.
“Oh no!” Diane said. “You have to leave the light on if we’re to play fair. The window-people must be able to see you if you’re able to see them.”
I was going to remark that none of this was at all mature of us when Diane grabbed my arm.
“There!” she hissed.
“Where?” I stumbled to the window and peered out.
“No pointing. Count four windows down from the roof and three to the right.” She tapped me between the shoulder blades. “That’s the man.”
I stared into the constant dusk maintained by the crane-necked lamps in the street below. In a series of dull yellow window spaces, his seemed to glow brighter. Tell me it was a different kind of light bulb, I don’t care. For sitting in a leather chair with his head in his hands was a handsome young man.
At least, I think he is handsome. He has good hair and a healthy build, but one can be mistaken at twenty-five yards. Please don’t be smart and ask how I knew it was John Out-the-Window and not Bob At-the-Desk or Will In-the-Tub. I know because I was suddenly and entirely interested in him, which happens only with people I end up adoring.
“It’s after five...shouldn’t he be done with his work?” I whispered.
“More importantly,” Diane said, “Shouldn’t he be at your mailbox?”
“Drat!” I might have said something worse. I neglect to remember. “Then he can’t be my John.”
I put my fingertips against the cold pane and watched the man. He sat forward and worked at his typewriter for a few half-hearted strokes. Then he sat back and rested his face in his hands again.
“The poor darling,” Diane said with a grimace.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Writer’s block. Happens to the best of us.”
“You’re a writer?”
“I answer to the title when the royalties come in.”
Suddenly I realized how utterly ridiculous it was to stand at my window people-watching in the company of a stranger. Illuminated from behind, no less.
“You must promise never to write this into your stories.”
Diane, the one who so recently had raised my hopes regarding John, now seemed an enemy.
“But I can’t!” she laughed. “All life is fair play.”
I did not think much of Diane Luray’s sense of fairness. I had acted a fool before her and my vanity now suggested terrifying images of my name in the gossip column as a Peeping Thomasina.
Mavis, I was even on the point of bribing her with weekend-visitations with the espalier brooch when the door unceremoniously banged in.
Mrs. Simmons stood on the mat, my fate between her stubby-fingered hands. “T’ought I’d save you a trip.”
I descended upon her with a cry purely animal in spirit and grabbed the purple foil box. The lid came off too readily and landed on Diane’s right foot. Two clusters of chocolate-dipped pecans drizzled with caramel rested on either side of an origami bird. I undid the paper and read greedily:
“To My Helen:
Classic turtles smell and all the doves in the District have been employed flying round at weddings. I sent nutty candy because I think fruit and chocolate should stay miles apart. Don’t you?
Ever Your Own,
Diane marveled. Mrs. Simmons chewed imaginary fingernails. I looked again at the poor fellow across the street who’d gone in for another try at his typing. If he was not John, then who was?
“The thing to do,” I said fiercely, “is to set his dates straight.”
And then, Mavis, I did a most heartless thing:
I sat down at my desk, flipped his note to the other side and wrote the following:
“Dear John Out-the-Window:
You’re off by two weeks.
My name is not Diana or Helen. It’s Toni.
I marched downstairs, cast the note into my mailbox, and turned back to Diane who had followed me down. My heart beat a swing rhythm.
“He’s clearly confused.”
“That is not...you are not...Antoinette Charleton, we have only just met but I feel compelled to say this: you are a fool.”
Diane retrieved my note and plucked a pencil from Mrs. Simmon’s paper cup.
“Thanks...a...million...” she read as she wrote. “I...never...read...calendars...anyway.”
You see, Mavis, how my life is run by strangers and mayhem? I’m off to see if Un-John has made any headway in his work. I think I’m fascinated.
Yours as Usual,Toni