By Rachel Heffington
In response to its infernal ringing, Willoughby lifted the receiver of his desk-telephone and grunted into it: H’lo? Willoughby Colbert’s office.”
“Take me dancing and make me forget there was ever a man named Christopher Markham.” The person on the other end of the phone-line drew a few reedy breaths, then laughed a little off-center.
Willoughby rocked back in his chair and peered at the yellowing calendar on the wall. Yep, still 1944. “Sal, that you?”
“And who the deuce else would it be?”
Then it was Salamanca Deathridge, calling him up at nine PM on a Tuesday night after two and a half years of friendly silence. Already, Willoughby felt the buzzing warmth speed into his blood. Sal’s voice, homelike, smoothed glossy paint over all the cracks worn into his soul by the last thirty-two months.
“Rizzio’s?” he drawled.
“9:25. I’m taking a taxi. And I won’t pray before I get in.”
The sharp click on the other end of the line told Willoughby that Sal considered the appointment made: he’d show up, because he always did. This eternal availability might’ve been because he was one of the only single men not kicking Hitler’s butt in France right now, but Willoughby preferred to think she favored his friendship over those tributaries which ran dry. He knew exactly which troublesome grey umbrella Sal walked under tonight: the daring, wild, implacable mood of a woman who’d been spurned by someone or another. And he knew exactly how to sooth her, as he had so many times. Sal might go two years without speaking to him, might not even remember there was such a guy as Willoughby Colbert in New York City, but get her in a pinch and she’d remember soon enough. Adorably predictable in that way. Kinda kid-like. She knew where to come for the real stuff.
Willoughby took his feet off the desk, spun his hat in an uncharacteristically flamboyant gesture, and walked, whistling, out the door, taking care to lock it behind him.
I don’t know why I care. Why do I care? I don’t. I don’t care.
“You got troubles, lady?”
Sal, too depressed to bother with activity, answered the cabby’s question with a non-committal “Mmmfh.”
“It’s just, you’re not looking quite yourself.”
This comment coming from a cab-driver she’d never met in her life caused Sal a momentary flicker of interest. She took her chin out of her hand and moved glazy eyes to the cabby’s potato-shaped face. “What’s that?”
He jerked his head over one shoulder, switched lanes, and jutted his chin. “Your lipstick’s coming off.”
Sal whipped out a compact mirror and saw, to her concern, the man had made an accurate observation. A vibrant red ring around her lips, a non-committal pink between.
“You know, I don’t know why I care.”
“About the lipstick?”
“So don’t,” the cabby advised helpfully.
Sal fished deeper in the little net clutch and extracted a tube of lipstick which she proceeded to apply. “Drama!” She flourished the tube. “ Everyone has to have their little pouch of drama, which wouldn’t be so bad if it could be rationed out or something. They ration everything else, you know. Why not drama?”
“Hear, hear!” the cabby pounded the edge of his steering wheel and pulled alongside the curb in front of a small dance-club. “Hey, lady.”
“I don’t know what you’re trying not to care about, but get this: it probably won’t matter tomorrow morning.”
Actually, it probably would matter tomorrow morning. Especially because he’d said that just now, in that absurdly cheerful manner of his. Sal manipulated a sulky smile onto her newly-rouged lips and handed in a fifty-cent coin. “Keep the change.”
“It won’t matter!” the cabby yowled after her as Sal slipped past a group of businessmen headed uptown. “Tomorrow, it won’t matter.”
Sal waved her net bag without turning around and barged through the door into Rizzio’s. A well-groomed attendant took her light wrap and asked if she waited for a companion.
“Seen a long-legged loser come in recently?”
The waiter answered that, if she referred, perhaps, to the gentleman sitting at the bar just there, then perhaps miss would like him to go apprise him of her arrival?
The attendant glistened off and Sal watched the old play of familiar figures: the immaculate waiter clearing his throat at Willoughby’s side, Willoughby, thoroughly absorbed in a cup of coffee, not hearing him. The waiter trying again, Willoughby coming-to with a jolt, the soft lights of the bar gleaming on his head of unabashedly good hair. The crinkle-eyed smile was followed up, as always, by the whole six foot-five of Willoughby Colbert extending itself to full running-trim as he found her and came forward.
“Salamanca Deathridge. Two years have done you no harm.”
“And if I’m allowed to hope that you’ve done no harm to anyone in two years, I think we must render ourselves satisfied.”
Willoughby’s eyes ran over her face again and again and she knew he saw straight through the confident lipstick. That was why she came.
Sal proffered her small, manicured hand and let it rest in Willoughby’s big, empty one. He put his other hand firmly in the small of her back and steered her to the floor where a black jazz band played one of her favorite songs. She couldn’t remember the name of it right now, or any of the words, but let her body sway to the rhythm. She’d missed this. Why had it been two and a half years? No wonder she felt thin and frail and half-starved.
“So who’s Christopher Markham and when can I do the honor of punching him for you?”
They’d gone away for a few minutes, and now all of Sal’s troubles came galloping back to stampede across her mind and leave her exhausted again. She wilted a little against Willoughby’s supporting arm and shook her head. “He’s Dorcas’ sweetheart.”
“I thought she was with Donny.”
“She broke that off eighteen months ago.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t have known.”
Was it just her, or did Willoughby sound a little defensive right there? She thought she’d better wake him up a bit. “I was thinking, I ought to throw a little party for all of the old set: Dorcas, Annie, Ben, Frankie, Martin, Priscilla. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
“If any of the old set is still this side of the Atlantic.”
Definitely defensive this time. Sal wilted a little further as she realized, barring she and Dorcas and Priscilla, who were nurses in a hospital here, all the old set had signed up for the war in their different capacities. All except Willoughby, who’d been excluded on the ridiculous grounds of asthma or something and now worked in the ad business.
“It’s okay, Sal,” Willoughby was saying now. “Somebody’s gotta stick around to paint Uncle Sam’s picture. ‘We Want You.’ It’s only those he doesn’t want who get the honor of making him look welcoming. I know his best angle. He says I’m his favorite portrait-painter.”
“I didn’t mean to pinch a sore spot, Wills.”
“Aw, I know, kiddo.”
He spun her gently out and brought her back, but it was an empty gesture, she felt. No pizazz in it. And this music was too slow. How was a girl supposed to cheer up if the band kept playing sentimental ballads?
“So what has Dorcas’s boyfriend done to peeve you?”
Christopher Markham of the excellent nose and devastating profile stalked into Sal’s mind. She gave him a mental kick in the pants as the band wrapped up one piece and started into “Swinging on a Star.” Willoughby’s hands gripped hers a little tighter and she leaned back into his tension.
“Christopher Markham,” she said, “Is a great big bad egg. He’s ridiculously handsome and Dorcas is absolutely ga-ga over him. She’s never home. We make all these plans to meet for dinner and she always forgets.” Maybe it was childish of her to feel cut out, but it wasn’t like Dorcas ever made any effort to keep things up. And they were roommates for heaven’s sake. “Chris is eternally taking her to the theatre, or the USO show, or out dancing. And when she is home, it’s nothing but, ‘Christopher this,’ or ‘Christopher that.’ I swear, Wills, I could tear that man’s eyes out with my fingernails.”
Willoughby cut off Sal’s bad humor by snapping her into a spin and dip. She came up laughing and not half as angry at Dorcas as she ought to be.
“A mule is an animal with long funny ears, kicks up at anything he hears.” Willoughby sang in his shameless way, a little oblivious as to tempo, but thoroughly good-natured. “His back is brawny but his brain is weak, he’s just plain stupid with a stubborn streak.” He wiggled his eyebrows at her to make her laugh, and tossed her to one side, then the other, gripping her close and flinging her away.
The joy of dancing – of being dragged through a musical kaleidoscope and making trails in the notes with their feet –began to intoxicate Sal. The new-fangled Latin dances were all dandy if you wanted something romantic, but for forgetting your woes, for forgetting everything but the easy presence of a good friend, there was nothing like swing. Willoughby was an excellent dancer – one of the best, in fact. Besides, she could always wear high-heels around him – the highest she wanted – without ever being taller than him. And this was a useful thing when you’re over-the-average tall for a girl.
“Still stewing over this Christopher Markham fiend?”
“Who’s Christopher Markham?”
“Atta girl. Any other men bothering you?”
“Men? A bother?”
“It’s been over two years. Can’t imagine a pretty, spunky thing like you’s been spending her time alone. You’re a nurse in a big hospital. Bet every soldier comes through your ward and leaves lovesick.”
“You’re a big tease.”
“I’m being one-hundred-percent honest, kiddo.”
Sal shrugged. “Maybe there’ve been a couple disturbances.”
“Major infractions?” Willoughby wrinkled his nose and laughed. “Anyone need a fist in the face?”
“That’s a little cruel when most of them have Kraut metal in there already. No, no one needs your charming fist, but thanks.”
Willoughby quieted a little and shook his head seriously. “God knows I wish I had a chance.”
“All these other fellas.” He spun her again. “And I don’t have even a fraction of a chance.”
She thought he meant a chance to fight. He probably did. Of course he could have meant something tenderer, but Sal was a sensible girl. She knew better than to ruin a perfect friendship by asking it if it wanted more. They danced closer to the band and, Sal imagined, made all the other couples jealous with their unaffected happiness.
“And you, Wills?”
He tilted his head down to look her in the eye. “What about me?”
The gaze lifted. “Nah. Too busy.”
Sal could translate: “I can’t fight so I’m not worthy of any woman.” That’s what that meant. She backed them off the dance floor as the song finished and rested her hand with purpose on Willoughby’s arm. He flinched a little as if even that was too good for him but Sal stayed with him and felt his pulse under her touch.
“Wills, you are valuable.” She gave him one of her best, most encouraging smiles.
He laughed, as he always had, like it couldn’t be true but that he was glad she’d said something. “Hey, Sal?”
Another whole-hearted smile. “Yeah?”
“I think you’ve got some lipstick on your tooth.”
It didn’t bother Sal how she looked in Willoughby’s presence. He was too familiar for that. All the same, blood shot to her face and shame – though she was unsure why – flooded to her fingertips. She growled savagely and swiped at her teeth.
“It’s probably because,” she protested, “I put it on in a dark cab with an impertinent driver looking on.”
Willoughby tossed his head, laughing the old laugh that forgot itself. “C’mon, goober. Let’s dance.”
He tugged her out to the floor and she followed, slipping past a young woman in evening dress who had stepped to the front of the band to sing. Willoughby looked back to smile at the girl appreciatively. Sal laughed in his face.
“What about her, Wills?”
His eyebrows shot up. “You’re not suggesting I pick up a chorus girl?”
“She’s an entertainer, and a looker to boot.”
“You’re horrible, Sal.”
She shrugged, pleased with herself. “I know.”
The band played a slow, bluesy tune and Willoughby’s arm fit easily around her waist. She was pleased for a slower pace and glad it wasn’t a waltz – her left arm always ached from reaching up over his Alpine shoulder. The room darkened and what lights there were focused on the singer, who smiled a little sadly and slipped into the first lines of a bittersweet, familiar tune.
“I can see no matter how near you’ll be you’ll never belong to me,” the girl sang. “But I can dream, can’t I?”
Her voice was devastating. Tears pinched the bridge of Sal’s nose, unreasonably she felt. Why the heck was she crying? What about? Nothing. Besides, Willoughby always hated that sort of thing.
He continued to lead well. Hadn’t seemed to notice her sudden depression. Bless the man’s obliviousness. Sal sorted through a stack of conversation-starters she might use to distract from this unwanted emotion. She could tease Willoughby again about the entertainer, or suggest he cut his hair differently, or admit to being as tired as she suddenly felt. If she employed the latter excuse, he’d take her gently to one of the cocktail tables lining the walls. He was that sort. A good sort.
“Can’t I pretend that I’m locked in the bend of your embrace?” the woman sang. “For dreams are just like wine and I am drunk with mine.”
Sal’s breath caught like a half-sob in her throat. Good heavens, woman. Collect yourself. Willoughby was humming along now. She felt his deep voice thrum against her palm which rested on his back, and at the next line he broke softly into song, keeping company with the entertainer:
His smile reached deep into his eyes, deprecating even the moment, apologizing for things that could not have been his fault. “I’m aware my heart is a sad affair. There’s much delusion there but I can dream, can’t I?”
Smile. Say something flippant, but Willoughby spun three times and the opportunity dropped someplace on the floor between them. The bridge of Sal’s nose hurt worse than ever and now her throat was tangled up in the trouble, asking to air-drop an embarrassing cargo of tears.
“Can’t I adore you although we are oceans apart?” Willoughby would sing. “I can’t make you open your heart but I can dream, can’t I? Dream on, dream on…”
The song finished on a sorrowful note. People were applauding for the songstress and Sal joined blindly in. She wasn’t so far gone as to forget what a beautiful moment the silk-clad, sparkling girl had given her. Then, before she’d had a chance to shirk the memory and let it fade, the band-leader grinned and jerked into “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
It jarred against her emotions like fingernails on old stone. Great. The Moment was now cemented in her heart forever by an incongruous set-list. No laughing it off now. As suddenly as Willoughby’s rich mood had dropped upon him it wisped away and he was his old, half-contrary self: a boy’s face and a man’s loyalty draped over six and a half feet of clumsy, good intentions.
“He’s in the army now blowin’ reveille, he’s the boogie-woogie bugle boy of Company B,” they sang together.
Willoughby bobbed his shoulders up and down like a simpleton. “They made him blow a bugle for his Uncle Sam. It really brought him down because he couldn’t jam…and now the company jumps when he plays reveille, he’s the boogie-woogie bugle boy of Company B.”
They finished with a deep dip and Willoughby half-dropped Sal. She squeaked and clung to his arms.
“Don’t drop me!”
Cackling, he lifted her back on her feet. “Just trying to shake that glum look off you. Shoot straight with me now, little Sal.” He tucked his chin and looked stern. “There’s a fella overseas, isn’t there?”
“Now what makes you think –”
They sauntered toward the bar. Willoughby motioned for two glasses of water. “Your face a minute ago. I can read faces.”
“Mmm.” She leaned against the counter. “You’d be a lot smarter if you learned to read books.”
“Ouch. What’s his name?”
“The one overseas.”
She sighed heavily. “Would it surprise you very much if I told you there isn’t one?”
“I’d be confused about your pouty-face.”
“Confusion is yours.”
Willoughby downed his water and viewed her a moment through the bottom of the glass. He set it down on the counter with a careless clack.
“Tell Dorcas I said hello.”
Sal jumped a little, then laughed. Dorcas with her sudden inability to remember any commitment, her protests when teased, her piled-on apologies, assurances of how sorry she was she’d left Sal – again – to her own company. Dorcas with her hideously perfect boyfriend.
“I hate this,” Sal admitted.
Willoughby flung an eyebrow upward. “What?”
“This annoying realization.”
“That the cabby was right. It already doesn’t matter.”
And because Willoughby understood her so well, he didn’t immediately inquire what cabby. The twenty-piece band, the soundtrack of their incongruent lives, struck up another tune.
“You know what, Sal?” The wry brother-smile.
“I say swing it.”
And really, put that way, his was the best logic in the world.