(Page 2 of 4)
Surely the baby won’t remember, Willa said.
But children are so impressionable at that age, the neighbor said.
Something has to be done, Willa said.
What did your husband say?
I was too ashamed to tell him, Willa said.
And you talked to her? A grown woman wearing such a pink coat.
They stopped the conversation in time for lunch, but it was resumed over afternoon coffee, then carried over to the next day’s bridge party, and then the Ladies Aid got word, and the Junior League, and the PTA, and soon every woman in town was sure that this time something must really be done. It’s one thing for them to live above Pistol Pete’s, but quite another to take over the parks. What’s next, they said, our husbands? Our homes? Yes. Those women must be run out of town.
A march was planned, a parade that would wind through town and end in a protest with signs and singing across the way from Pistol Pete’s. And they could, if need be, repeat this process, make it a daily vigil, see what those women thought about that. They would save the town. They would save the boys. Victory over vice. A date was set, a day that would take place in a month, a date that left enough time to properly plan, to rouse their fellow women through calling trees, and coffee dates, and fliers. Someone would type a flier, someone else volunteered to pay for copies from a printing press. More letters needed typing.
But every time Willa sat down to her typewriter, she saw the woman on the bench. At first she thought it was the distractions at home. The baby always crying, the dishes, the coupons to be cut, her husband underfoot, the other children screaming, and when she mentioned this to her neighbor over the clothesline, her neighbor offered to babysit. Anything, she said, for the cause. But when the house was quiet it was worse. She saw the woman on the bench and the dog. And instead of typing, she walked to the park, sat on the bench, and waited. Sometimes, on days when she had the car for shopping, she went to the Red Owl and lingered at the meat counter. But the woman never came.
A week passed, and soon someone called for a copy of the flier and the letters. The fliers needed to be passed out, circulated, spread around town, but of course, they must get printed first.
I’m not quite done, Willa said.
But surely, just one flier doesn’t take a whole week. And there was very few letters this time.
The baby had a cold, the children, school projects. You understand, Willa said.
The woman said that she did, but she’d be back the next day.
The next day Willa didn’t wait for the woman. She typed the flier, put it in a document envelope, and taped it to her front door with a note: My excuses, something came up. Flier enclosed. Letters posted. She signed the note with blue ballpoint pen.
She bundled up the baby, walked her children to school, then walked to the park. It was a cold day, and the wind, although sporadic, was bitter, and she could feel it chapping her cheeks and lips. She pulled a little pink knitted blanket around the baby’s face, but she didn’t turn for home. In a bit, she told the baby, we’ll go home in a bit.
An old woman was sitting on the park bench throwing bits of bread to a few pigeons. Willa had seen her there before, sometimes asleep, sometimes reading a dime store paperback, but mostly, she sat and fed whatever birds happened to be around. The playground was empty, but when the wind blew, the swings moved back and forth. Willa pushed the stroller over, scattering the birds, and sat down next to the old woman. The old woman took her gloves and pointed at the baby.
Not good weather for a day at the park, she said.
Do you sit here often? Willa said.
The old woman scratched her head, nodded, and put her gloves back on. She said she went to the park, oh, almost every day. Fed the birds. Got some air, stretched her legs. Husband had died, children grew up, had to keep busy, pass the time.
Have you ever seen a woman here wearing a pink fur coat? She has a little dog, and the dog wears a pink fur coat too.
One of the pigeons returned, and the woman threw another bit of bread. The wind blew, and Willa rearranged the baby’s pink blanket and waited for her to respond.
Her with a pink fur coat, she said. Yes, just the other day. Sat down on the bench with me. She was crying.
Did she have the little dog?
The dog, that was the trouble, the old woman said. Said someone ran it over.
Was it an accident?
I might be old, the old woman said, squinting her eyes, but I know she’s one of those women. I know. I’ve been around. Wasn’t no accident.
As she raised her voice, the pigeon took to the air, and the wind blew, and the swings moved back and forth, and Willa told the old woman that she had better get the baby out of the chilly weather, and left the park. The old woman yelled after her as she left, her voice carrying with the wind.
I know what you women are up to, she yelled. I know.
The next time Willa saw her neighbor over the clothesline, she tried to tell her about the old woman, about the dead little dog. She tried to describe the exact way the swings moved back and forth, the exact way the pigeon cocked its head, eating the bread, listening. But she couldn’t. The jets flew overhead, just like always, leaving contrails, and she had such a headache.
You’re sure it wasn’t an accident? her neighbor said.
I’m not feeling very well, Willa said.
Maybe an angry client, the neighbor said.
The old woman said to leave her alone.
But if we leave them alone, there’s no telling what the world will come to.
The jets are so loud today, Willa said.
The institution of marriage, the neighbor said.
I need an aspirin.
Setting a moral example for our children.
I need a nap, Willa said.
Public decency, her neighbor said.
She turned to leave, and the neighbor had to yell because a jet, another jet, flew overhead. She yelled: If they don’t leave, something terrible will happen.
Over the next few days the fliers circulated. They were hanging on street poles, on the bulletin board in the Red Owl, and someone (Willa suspected it was the newspaper editor’s wife) had stuffed one in every Sunday paper between the funnies and the sports section. Willa’s husband asked if she was the one who had typed it, the Sunday paper spread before him as he ate breakfast.
So what if I did? she said.
I don’t want you to go, he said.
I’m setting a moral example for the children, she said.
I’m not saying it’s right, he said.
Standing up for the institution of marriage, Willa said.
We should leave those women alone, he said.
What about public decency? she said.
I have a headache, he said as he folded up the paper.
Somewhere in the house one of the children started to cry.
Willa said: If they stay, something terrible will happen.
But the next day, Monday morning, Willa really didn’t think that if those women stayed, anything really terrible would happen. They’ve been here this long, she thought. Mondays were always her grocery and shopping days, which meant she had the car for the whole day. After she took the children to school and dropped the baby with a sitter, she drove her husband to work and explained to him that really, most likely the ladies in town just needed something to do, a new cause, a crusade. That nothing terrible would happen. Those women didn’t seem likely to leave any time soon. And the Air Force didn’t seem likely to leave. Nothing would happen. Probably nothing would happen at all. And he didn’t say anything, so she kept talking.
You remember two years ago, she said, when we all raised money for the tuberculosis society, and the year before when we rallied for that widow falsely charged with mail fraud?
But this is different, her husband said.
He sat with his briefcase on his legs, his sack lunch balanced on top of the briefcase. A light changed to red and, caught unaware, she slammed on the brakes. His lunch slid off the briefcase, landing on the floor.
I hope I didn’t smash your sandwich, she said.
Never mind the sandwich, he said. I thought you liked staying at home.