In 1955, when the Air Force started building on the far outskirts of town what the local paper called an Aerospace Defense Command Center, the town was excited. To quote the local paper, which the town often did, this would surely show those no-good Soviets exactly what they were dealing with. Their town would be ready. Uncle Sam, in all his bounty, had chosen their town. Their little stretch of prairie. Fortunate stroke of luck, they all said. Nothing terrible will ever happen here now.

But when the Air Force came that fall, the men came. When the men came, so did the women. The women who came were sometimes wives and sometimes not, which precisely started the trouble. The women of the town, the women and wives who had been there long before the Air Force, recognized this problem right away. Certainly they hadn’t foreseen such a problem. Shocking. Upsetting. They all agreed: these poor boys, they protect our country, we must protect their honor. But how? Their husbands mostly shrugged. A few insensitive ones said things like: how do you think I passed the time during my Pacific tour? Or, too bad these girls aren’t French, oh la la, the French girls I met during the war!

The practical husbands suggested their wives turn a sensible blind eye. After all, the entire town was doing more and more business since the Air Force came, and wouldn’t more business be good? Wouldn’t it possibly mean that summer vacation for them? That fur they’d been eying? New shoes for the kids? A deluxe electric stove? Money to send to their mother for her operation? A way to pay off the mortgage?

When Willa asked her husband he just shrugged and said that he felt sorry for those women, not the Air Force boys. When she asked him just what exactly he meant by that, he only shrugged. When she said, wait just a darn minute, he had the audacity to go mow the lawn. Both the front and the back, and then, to add insult to injury, he washed the car. When he finally came back in for supper he wouldn’t say another word on the subject.

And so the women talked amongst themselves. Over clotheslines. While waiting to collect their children at school. At bridge parties. Morning coffee. Afternoon cake. Church socials. In front yards, and backyards. Between grocery store aisles. Slowly, they made plans, organized, enlisted the help of their friends, typed pamphlets and letters, and armed themselves for battle. They would, in effect, drive the vice out of their town. If they didn’t have their men behind them, they at least had most of the priests and ministers.

They worked all winter. To do her part, Willa typed most of the letters, ones to Air Force generals, Air Force wives, senators, the president, the first lady, the governor, the pope, the bishop, the mayor, not to mention letters to the editor. When her husband told her that he was glad to see she was putting that typing course to good use, she asked him if he really thought so. He went to shovel snow off the front walk. The women who were not involved in letter typing, or ladies league speeches, those other women, took up residence above Pistol Pete’s Saloon, a place that Willa heard described as an establishment that had been going downhill for years. Those other women wore fur coats to ward off the snow, the bitterly cold weather. Those other women were careful, but conspicuous. And, as the town women complained, they often were seen buying new stockings, stocking up, with the same ease as every other female on cans of soup and Spam at the Red Owl Grocery, even frequenting the movie theater on what was presumably a slow afternoon. No, they said, it must not be tolerated. But nothing happened, the months passed, seasons passed, and the Air Force, the town, and all of its various women continued: writing letters, buying stockings, talking over clotheslines, and comparing the prices of canned goods. Willa found this rather curious.

Nothing happened, she said to her husband over dinner one night. Typed my fingers raw, not even a response from the mayor.

The damaging nature of typing then should make you happy to be a housewife rather than a secretary, her husband said.

She could see he was smiling, and since he was in the middle of eating Swedish meatballs, she took this as encouragement that he’d have to sit through and hear her out. She gave their baby another bite of mashed carrot before continuing. She could hear the television on in the other room where their other children sat watching, ready for bed in their pajamas, having eaten before their father came home from work.

But surely it’s illegal, she said.

What’s illegal? How much time secretaries spend typing?

He was still smiling, but no longer eating. She watched him push meatballs and egg noodles around on his plate. He had turned his head, perhaps to listen to the children in the other room, or perhaps to the television.

Those women, she said. I see them around town, the children see them around town. Just the other day, at the park, no less, one was walking a little dog, a Chihuahua, right in plain sight. And the children actually asked me if they could go pet her dog.

Nothing illegal about walking a dog, her husband said.

Of course I told the children no, she said. What else could I say? But they wanted to know why not.

He picked up his plate and carried it over to the sink. The television went silent, probably accidently turned off, and one of the children started to cry. He smiled at her again and told her he’d better go see what the heavens was going on in the living room. She turned and spooned more carrots into the waiting baby’s mouth.

It was true, she had seen the woman at the park, walking her little dog, and the children had asked a lot of questions. But that was only because the woman with the little dog had sat down on the bench next to her. Willa had been sitting with the baby stroller parked next to her, while the children went down the slide, pushed each other on swings, and filled their shoes with sand. Although it was a nice fall day, sunny and fairly warm, no one else was in the park. Perhaps, she had thought, because it was after school hours, late afternoon, when most children were at home, or eating early suppers, or doing schoolwork before their fathers returned home from work.

She saw the woman walking toward her, hips swaying, the dog pulling on the leash, pulling both of them forward. The woman was wearing a cream dress with a light pink fur coat. The dog was also wearing a pink fur coat, a miniature version of its owner’s. Willa’s heart started beating fast. She considered calling the children, leaving the park. But to leave they would have to walk by the woman and the dog anyway. So she sat, and the children kept swinging and laughing, and the baby stayed asleep, and Willa kept her eyes on the woman. The woman had nice red hair, but it clashed with the pink coat. Willa thought she was probably older than her, and somehow this had surprised her. She watched the dog stop and pee, and the woman bend down and carefully check to make sure it hadn’t damaged its miniature fur coat. She watched the woman walk straight towards her, the dog pulling the leash taut so it could sniff at the baby stroller, sniff at Willa’s feet. The woman sat down.

Or, as Willa thought about it now in her kitchen, spooning carrots to the baby, it was to her horror that the woman had sat down next to her. The woman had sat down, smoothed her coat, her dress, and then bent, calling the little dog over, and smoothed its coat.

It’s a nice day, the woman said. She snapped her fingers at the dog and it jumped onto her lap. This is Eddy, she said. Upon hearing his name, Eddy wagged his tail.

Willa nodded and then turned to shift the baby carriage out of the afternoon sun.

You’re one of those town ladies, the woman said. I’ve seen you with them passing out those pamphlets. And once, maybe just last spring, you and some other lady pointed at me at the Red Owl Grocery. You were wearing a navy blue coat.

I’m sorry, I don’t remember, Willa said.

I was buying some steak for Eddy. But don’t feel bad, it’s the same welcome in every other place I’ve been.

Just then the children spotted Eddy. They pointed and yelled about the dog in such a loud voice that the baby woke up and started crying, and by the time the children reached the bench, the dog had jumped off the woman’s lap and started barking.

Can we pet that dog? they both said.

No, it’s time to go home.

She stood up, and even though the baby was still screaming, she started pushing the stroller towards the path, her two children running behind her.

I want a dog, her son said.

I want red hair, her daughter said.

Let’s not mention this to Dad, Willa said.

But why not? her son said.

I want a pink coat, her daughter said, and turned to point at the woman.

And Willa turned to look back at the bench, and saw that the woman was still sitting, and Eddy was still barking.

And so she had gone home and made dinner for the children and gotten them ready for bed and told them that, as a treat, they could watch television. She hoped, although she felt guilty, that this would keep them from mentioning the park to their father. She cooked for her husband and mashed carrots for the baby, thinking of the woman in the park. The pink coat. The dog. The dog’s pink coat. And as she sat feeding the baby, she wondered, since it was now dark, if the woman had gone to work. She imagined crowds of Air Force boys on leave for the night laughing and drinking at Pistol Pete’s. She wondered if pink fur coats were expensive.

The next day, after walking the children to school, Willa talked to her neighbor over the clothesline. They shared a clothesline and they were both hanging up tiny shirts, little pairs of pants, small dresses, even smaller socks. Overhead, Air Force jets left white contrails in the sky. Sometimes the jets were so loud that the women had to raise their voices.

In the park, did you just say? the neighbor said.

In front of my children, Willa said.

And your baby not even a year old, the neighbor said, and shook her head.

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.

The light turned green and she hit the accelerator fast. His lunch bag tumbled again. She wanted to tell him about that woman’s pink coat.

Instead all she said was: It’s a peanut butter sandwich. But I’ll get more of that ham you like from the Red Owl today. It’s on sale.

She did go to the Red Owl. And she did go to the deli counter to buy the ham, but there was a long line and she had to wait. She looked around and thought she saw a pink fur coat disappear down an aisle. She told the lady waiting in line behind her to jump ahead, that she had forgotten something. But when she reached the aisle, it was empty, so she took off at a run, her heels clacking on the Red Owl tile, towards the front of the store.

A crowd had gathered, staring out the big glass store windows. Bag boys. Checkers. Shoppers. The man who stocked the fruits and vegetables. Willa pushed her way to the front. Out the window she saw the woman in the pink coat yelling.

Who’s that woman yelling at? a checker said.

Some man, the baker said.

I think it’s the one getting into that blue sedan.

The crowd pushed closer to the store windows.

What’s she doing now? someone said. The blue sedan sped away.

Let me through, Willa said, and pushed her way through to the doors.

Once outside the store, she walked towards the woman in the pink coat slowly. She wasn’t sure why. The woman in the pink coat didn’t seem to hear her coming, didn’t seem to hear the shoes slapping the concrete, and as Willa walked towards her, the woman bent down and started unbuckling her shoes.

I hate these shoes, the woman said.

Who was that in the blue sedan? Willa said.

Willa was sure that the crowd from inside of the store had followed her outside, but she didn’t want to turn around to look.

What’s it to you? the woman said as she stood up, a shoe in each hand.

We met once, at the park. I was there with my children and you sat down with your dog.

She didn’t know what else to say. She should just walk to her car, drive home. Forget the whole thing before something terrible happened. But instead of taking out her keys, or going back in for the ham, forgetting the whole thing, minding her own business, Willa found herself telling the woman that she was sorry about the dog. Such a small dog and oh, the matching pink coat.

The woman in the pink coat turned and said that fine, if Willa cared so damn much, she could give her a ride. She needed a ride somewhere, anywhere.

Oh, Willa said, well, yes, I suppose.

She pointed at her car, and the woman shrugged, and together they started walking towards it. For a moment, Willa remembered the ham, and on sale even, but then someone from the crowd yelled, and she decided it was just too late for that now.

When they got into the car Willa asked the woman if she wanted to be dropped at Pistol Pete’s. But the woman, who was now taking off her torn stockings, said no, not Pistol Pete’s, not ever again. And so Willa took her home, despite a nagging worry about what her neighbors might think.

Because, Willa said, I don’t know where else to take you.

My name’s Laura, the woman said.

Willa wasn’t sure what to do about Laura, so she told her she still had a few hours before she had to pick up her children from school and the baby from the sitter’s.

I’ll make us some coffee, Willa said as she motioned for Laura to sit down at the kitchen table. Can I take your coat?

Laura set her shoes down on the table, took her pink fur coat off, and handed it to Willa. The coat was soft and heavy. Maybe dyed fox fur. Willa carried it to the hall coat closet and looked at the label. Jean Eclipse, Hollywood. The label was embroidered in gold thread. She hung up Laura’s coat and her own navy wool one. She’d never had a fur coat. The neighbor did, but not her.

She went back to the kitchen and started measuring the coffee. Laura had shut the drapes and turned on the kitchen light, and she was sitting, playing with one of the baby’s spoons that must have accidently been left lying about after that morning’s breakfast. Her shoes were still on the table, and next to them her torn stockings and pocketbook, but Willa decided not to say anything just now.

I hope you like your coffee without sugar because I’m out. I was going to buy more today, but I suppose it’ll wait until tomorrow.

I don’t mean to intrude like this, Laura said.

I was also going to buy some ham, it was on sale, you know. I suppose I’ll just tell my husband I had a headache, a splitting headache, and couldn’t finish the shopping.

I’ve been all over, but I’ve always had Eddy.

Made him peanut butter and jam today, just like I gave the children. I suppose he’ll have to put up with one more day of peanut butter and jam.

It wasn’t an accident. That man in the blue sedan. His wife.

I don’t mean to intrude, Willa said as she put the coffee cups on the table.

She wanted to get me back. And she did, Laura said.

I’m out of sugar but I have milk, Willa said.

I had a husband once, Laura said.

Does he know? Willa said as she pushed the milk bottle towards Laura.

No, Laura said, he died a long time ago.

Over coffee they decided what to do. The whole time Willa thought how strange it all was, but she didn’t say this. Instead, she told Laura if she wanted to leave town that she should. The town certainly wouldn’t stop her. That she’d give her the grocery money she hadn’t spent and she’d drop her at the train station between picking up her children and getting her husband from work. Laura agreed and told her she’d take a train back home, to California, she had a sister there, or she used to anyways. She’d repay her once she was there, borrow it from her sister, or find a job. Send her the money in the mail. Willa said, sure, why sure, and decided it wasn’t polite to ask her exactly what kind of job she meant, and suddenly she had an idea.

How about this instead? Willa said. I’ll trade you my grocery money, plus a new pair of my stockings for your pink coat.

Laura smiled and said fine, that it was too warm to wear in California anyway, and Willa wondered what had happened to Eddy’s pink coat after he died, and she thought about the label: Jean Eclipse, Hollywood.

I’m sorry, Laura said, but could I ask one more favor? Could I freshen up before it’s time to go?

She left Laura at the table and went to her bedroom. She had two new pairs of stockings, still in their wrapping, and she took them to the bathroom and left them on the counter with a set of clean towels and a new bar of soap. She went back to the kitchen and told Laura to take a bath if she wanted, that she had to say she looked a mess, that there was still two hours before she had to get her children. Was she really sure she didn’t want to stop and get her things from Pistol Pete’s?

Willa waited until she heard the water running, then went to the hall closet and tried on the pink coat. She felt sad, she wasn’t sure why, but she knew she could never wear the coat anywhere. It fit her perfectly, and boy, was it soft. She left it on and went to the kitchen and put the grocery money in an envelope for Laura. Laura’s shoes and pocketbook were still on the table.

Maybe it was because she had on Laura’s coat, or maybe because she realized that she hadn’t heard any jets today, or maybe because the drapes were closed and she could hear the water still running, that she decided to go through Laura’s pocketbook.

It was a small pocketbook, not as well made or expensive as the coat, this much Willa could tell. Inside she found a key, one she assumed opened a room at Pistol Pete’s, a dollar bill, a tube of pink lipstick, a brass dog tag that read Eddy, a coupon for the Red Owl, a postcard folded in half, and a small picture of a man, its corners worn and creased.

She unfolded the postcard. The front said Greetings from Chicago and had a purple sketch of a sky scraper and a lake. She turned it over and read the very small, neat handwriting:

Hello, my Sylvie-poo, how are you? Everybody doing pretty here. Weather just grand. Went to the movies last night to see the new Gable. It was so-so but we had fun anyways. Carl went fishing this morning and caught three. One weighed 2, one 6½, and the other 7½. These are the first he caught this spring. Say, Carl wanted to know if Ma’s birthday was in May. Well, he’s a bright one, it’s February 9. He forgets things but I suppose I love him anyways.
With lots of love, and best wishes for all.
Laura

It was dated, Willa noticed, April 3, 1940. The address was for someone in California. Maybe the sister, Willa thought, but the postcard had never been sent, and it had no stamp, no postmark. She looked at the tiny picture of the man. He was wearing an army uniform, and he wasn’t bad looking, although she thought he looked very young, maybe just 18. The back of the picture had his name, Carl, and a set of dates, 1922-1943.

She put everything back, the key, the lipstick, everything, except for the postcard. She went and got her typewriter and set it up at the kitchen table. She could still hear the water running in the bathroom, and she thought she heard Laura humming. She put in a sheet of paper and typed.

Everybody doing pretty here, she typed. Weather just grand. By the time she heard the water turn off, she had finished, put the postcard, the pink coat, and the typewriter back, and folded up the sheet of paper into a very tiny square which she put in her own pocketbook. By the time she had picked up her children and dropped Laura off at the train station, there were jets and contrails once again in the sky. She picked her husband up from his office but didn’t say anything about Laura. She was sure he somehow knew.

Later that night, after all the children were asleep, he told her that someone had called his office to tell him she had been acting strangely at the grocery store. She told him it was true. She’d had a terrible headache, she said, and she’d had to leave. She’d lost the grocery money too. No ham tomorrow, she said.

Promise me you’ll leave this whole thing alone, he said.

Everybody doing pretty here, she said.

The next time she did laundry, the neighbor was waiting. She’d heard all about what happened at the Red Owl from her sister. Her sister’s girl worked in the Red Owl bakery and watched the whole scene. And someone else had told her, she couldn’t remember who, maybe that busybody down the street, that Willa had been seen dropping that woman off at the train station. Was it true? Had she really gotten one of those women to leave town?

But Willa just said her head hurt, and went back into her house, where she made herself coffee and calculated how many hours it took to take a train to California. And later that week she didn’t go to the march, despite the women in town calling her, begging her, they’d heard all about the Red Owl. It was just what they needed, a role model, a real leader. Imagine, they said, Willa had succeeded where everyone else had failed.

She stayed home and oiled her typewriter. A headache, she said. And the march came and went, and nothing terrible happened. Nothing happened at all. The jets flew back and forth. Ham went on sale. Husbands went to work. Children went to school. The baby cried. The pink fur coat sat in her hall closet, untouched. There was coffee and church and laundry. And for a while, a year or so more, those women stayed. And then one day Willa heard over coffee, while hanging laundry, she could never really remember—these things gave her such a headache—that finally something terrible had happened.

One of the Air Force boys, drunk, tired, the stress of the Cold War perhaps, had snapped and killed one of those women, and the woman was found naked and dead outside of town. Or maybe it wasn’t that at all. Maybe it was one of those women—tired, overworked, underappreciated, the stress, the loneliness, all of that—who had killed one of the Air Force boys. Stabbed him in the chest in front of Pistol Pete’s. Left him to die as she drove away in his car, only to be found by the cops two days later, hiding two towns away. Or perhaps the murderer was a person from town, a woman fed up with the laundry, a man tired of God knows what, Willa didn’t know, couldn’t remember the details, but she was sure this was what she heard. It was in the papers, but she didn’t read them, gave her such a headache. And anyway, she thought, the details didn’t matter. Everybody doing pretty here. Weather just grand.

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