NOTE: This is part of the new novel I am writing. I am posting it here as a diversion for readers who may be living under shelter-in-place policies while the world waits for the coronavirus pandemic to pass. For an explanation of this project, please click here.
A Seed Is Planted
April 1948 ~ Kavanaugh’s Pub, St. Louis
Shirley dropped her books on a table in the corner of the storeroom and tied her apron around her waist.
“Shirley, is that you?” Her mother’s voice floated in from the kitchen.
“Yes. Sorry I’m late. Billy Collins stole my homework and told me I couldn’t have it back until I gave him a kiss,” she said, peering into the cloudy, speckled mirror that hung above the table as she tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to smooth her hair. She’d inherited her mother’s unruly Scottish curls, and they didn’t respond well to the St. Louis humidity that rose from the Mississippi River and settled over the city as soon as the weather warmed up.
“Did you give him one?”
Shirley glanced up as her mother appeared in the doorway, arms folded.
“Of course not,” Shirley said. “I’d sooner kiss a sewer rat. I shoved him into a ditch and took back my homework.”
Her mother laughed. “That’s my girl,” she said. Moira Kavanaugh did not suffer fools gladly, and Shirley — who had her mother’s impatience and her father’s quick reflexes — felt no obligation to do so, either.
“I wish he’d leave me alone,” Shirley fumed, giving up on her hair and following her mother into the kitchen. “I’ve made it plain as day that I’m not the least bit interested in him, and I don’t know what he hopes to accomplish by provoking me.”
“He likes you.”
“Well, I don’t like him, and making me late for work isn’t going to improve my opinion of him.” Shirley glanced up at the tickets hanging from clothespins above the grill and began slapping hamburger patties onto the hot surface. “I can’t wait to be done with school and get away from these childish fools.”
Moira took the spatula from her. “Speaking of childish fools, your Da said he could use a little help behind the bar tonight.”
Shirley rolled her eyes.
“Don’t look at me like that. This place keeps a roof over your head and —”
“— Food on your table,” Shirley finished in unison with her mother. “I know, but that doesn’t mean I have to like putting up with drunks.”
“Some of those drunks are nice men, Shirley.”
“And some of those drunks are married men who look at me in ways a married man shouldn’t, especially when he’s got daughters older than me.”
Moira sighed. “They’re harmless.”
“They’d better stay that way, because I’m not. I don’t care. I’ll fight ’em as soon as look at ’em.”
“Ye are your father’s girl.” Moira shook her head. “One day, Shirley. One day, some fine young man is goin’ to turn your head.”
“And that fine young man isn’t goin’ to be some workin’ stiff drinkin’ his entire paycheck in me Da’s pub,” Shirley shot back, imitating her mother’s accent. She pushed open the door and favored one of the workin’ stiffs in question with a dazzling smile. “Well, hello, Handsome. I think that glass might have a hole in it. You’d better let me get you another.”
Her father shook his head. “You’re incorrigible,” he said, pulling another pint of Budweiser for the man his daughter was busy charming.
Shirley smiled. “And you’d go broke without me, Daddy,” she beamed. “I’m your best salesman.”
A heavy-set, bespectacled man with a fringe of hair that had once been black eased himself onto a barstool. “Afternoon, Shirley,” he said, rubbing his eyebrows. “What a day. Lemme have a Stag and ask your mama if she’ll fix me one of those brain sandwiches.”
“You’ve got it,” Shirley said. “Mustard and onions?”
“Stag for Mr. Thompson, please,” Shirley told her father as she darted back to the kitchen to put in the sandwich order.
By the time she returned, Mr. Thompson was staring into his beer.
“Terrible. Had to let a man go today. Ol’ boy got crosswise of the big boss, and it fell to me to tell him he was out of a job.” He sighed. “How was your day?”
“Better than yours, I guess,” Shirley said. “Got here five minutes late and ruined my hair because I had to stop and put a boy in a ditch for getting fresh.”
Mr. Thompson’s face brightened. “I’d like to have seen that,” he said, chuckling. “Haven’t those boys learned better than to mess with our Shirley?”
“That one has,” Shirley said with a sly grin as she wiped down the bar.
“Oh! I almost forgot!” Mr. Thompson said, fishing in his shirt pocket for something. He extracted a linen postcard and handed it to her. “I picked this up for you last week while we were out West. Read the story on the back.”
Shirley thanked him and took the card, smiling at the picture on the front of a large mesa rendered in shades of purple and orange against a vivid turquoise sky. She turned it over. “The legend of Tucumcari Mountain,” she read. The story involved a pair of star-crossed Apache lovers named Tocom and Kari killing themselves atop the mesa.
“Huh. You think that’s really how that mountain got its name?” she asked.
“I doubt it,” Mr. Thompson said. “Sounds kinda made-up to me.”
“Me, too. Still a nice story, though. Did you get to see the mountain while you were out there?”
“I did. Big mesa just south of town. Pretty thing. You ought to see it.”
“I wish I could,” Shirley said. “All these places you show me on the postcards — they look wonderful. All colorful and bright and open. All I see around here is gray and brown, with too many smokestacks and too many cars and too many people coming and going. Makes me feel like I’m suffocating. Looks like you could really breathe out there.”
“It’s different,” Mr. Thompson said. “Those skies are something else. You know the paintings on the old Mazda lamp ads, with the girls looking off cliffs and stuff like that?”
“It looks like that out there,” he said. “Same color sky — blue as your eyes, if you can believe it — and the same kinds of wild-looking mountains and rocks and mesas and things.”
Shirley started to slide the card back to him. “Maybe I’ll see it someday.”
“Keep that card for your collection,” Mr. Thompson said.
“Thank you,” Shirley said. She pocketed the card. “I’d better go see if Mother’s got your sandwich ready.”
She brought out the sandwich, piping hot, with a big pile of homemade potato chips on the side. “Careful with those,” she said, setting mustard, salt and pepper next to the plate. “The chips just came out of the fryer.”
“Thank you, Shirley,” Mr. Thompson said. “You should be finishing up school pretty soon here, shouldn’t you?”
“Couple more months,” she said.
“Soon as you graduate, come see me. I might know a way you could get out there to see those colorful places you’re dreaming about.”
“Work for the Fred Harvey Company. They’ve put nice restaurants and hotels all over that part of the country. They’re always looking for smart, pretty young ladies to go out there and work for them. Take you out there on the rail, put you up in rooms at the hotels, and pay you a fair salary to do just what you’ve been doing here since you were a pup. You’d be a cinch for one of those jobs.”
“Huh. I never thought about doing something like that.”
“You’d be good at it. I know girls who aren’t nearly as smart as you who went out there and had adventures and wound up meeting rich men and marrying them. Wouldn’t that be something? Our Shirley, the wife of a Congressman or something?”
Shirley laughed. “I wouldn’t have the patience to be a politician’s wife,” she said.
“Oil baron, then. I bet those rich old guys in Tulsa have got sons just about your age. You could be an heiress.”
Shirley wrinkled her nose. “Too fancy for me,” she said. “I’d like to see that mountain, though.”
“Bill, are you trying to steal my best beer salesman away from me?” her father said.
“Don’t blame me if she’s got more sense of adventure than you do,” Mr. Thompson said, grinning around a mouthful of sandwich. “This one was born for bigger skies than this city can show her.”
Shirley laughed. “I’ll think about it,” she said. The idea of leaving home scared her a little, but skies the color of a Mazda-lamp ad? She’d think about that for a long time.