Lady Lieutenant Red by Carol J. Luther
Garnet checked her watch, a very nice watch, Martin’s present to her on their first anniversary. Martin was meeting her at the USO at 5, and it had taken her twenty minutes to walk to Mrs. Tarpley’s house, where a room was advertised as “ideal for a serviceman’s wife; shared bathroom; kitchen privileges to be arranged; pay by the week or the month; must show marriage license.”
Garnet surveyed the space in the second floor room.
“Now did the USO tell you that I include breakfast?” Mrs. Tarpley said, opening the blinds on one of the double windows. The sun warmed the green and tan braided rug on the floor. Dust motes swirled.
Garnet nodded. A white iron bedstead was covered with a white chenille spread featuring a motif of white roses in the weave. Three decorative pillows perched at the head with bright red roses and green leaves needlepointed on the diagonal. Next to the bed was a nightstand where she could put their Baby Ben alarm clock.
Mrs. Tarpley smacked the bed pillows. “That’s good goose feathers.”
Garnet smiled and followed the rose motif coiling around the wallpaper. Mrs. Tarpley’s house, the part she had seen, was a monument to red roses, fitting perhaps since Barton, Texas, was home to a celebrated Rose Festival, suspended now for the duration of the war, but as a whole, the rose effect was a little overwhelming, rather like being enveloped in a large bouquet.
She tried to think of what she ought to be asking. A very feminine room. Mrs. Tarpley had been a widow for some time, she surmised, or else, Mr. Tarpley had left the interior of the place to his wife.
An armless wooden rocking chair sat near the window. She ran her hand over the back, and it tilted forward. She thought of the little apartment she and Martin had been living in for the first year of their marriage in Elizabethville, Tennessee. All their household goods were now in storage to be taken out when she did not know.
Would Martin like this place? She’d never had to look for an apartment or room for herself, and she’d never even stayed in a hotel. Rooms were scarce in this town where the army training camp had sprouted only two years ago and now held a population as large as the town. She was here for only a few weeks, until he finished basic training and got his orders to ship out. She glanced at her watch again.
Mrs. Tarpley straightened a starched doily on the dresser. “If you’re interested, you can make a deposit to hold it, and, of course, I’ll have to see your marriage license. The USO sends good girls, but that’s my rule. A war’s on, but I have my standards.”
Garnet blushed. “I’ll—I’ll take it then. I have the license right here.” She fumbled in her brown leather purse, newly purchased for the big trip, and brought out the license. While Mrs. Tarpley read every word of it, she pulled out the money and smoothed the corners of the bill. Mrs. Tarpley had already interviewed her about her family background, schooling, and religion before she’d brought her up to see the room.
“That’s fine, Mrs. James.” Mrs. Tarpley returned the license and took the money.
“I have to be going to meet my husband,” Garnet said, snapping her purse shut and edging towards the stairs.
“All right, but you’ll be needing a receipt.”
“Oh, right,” Garnet said. Have to be careful with money. I’m not at home now, she reminded herself.
Luckily, Martin liked the room well enough, and he joked that the roses on the wallpaper grew a little more each time he came. He’d never been big, lanky was the word for him, but he seemed more muscular. She saw him infrequently, usually on weekends, because the training kept him so busy.
She, however, found herself sitting in the room wondering what to do with all of the hours alone. She started taking walks in the afternoon to get some fresh air and exercise, and on one of those excursions she met Dinah, who rented a room down the street and whose husband was also in basic training.
Dinah took her shopping in town. Garnet had hesitated to go there by herself. Crowded with servicemen arriving and leaving, Barton was bigger than Elizabethville but not as big as Knoxville, she thought. Dinah had lived in Roanoke, Virginia, and was more used to city life.
It was a relief to have someone to talk to. “We’re spending a lot of money eating out,” Garnet told Dinah as they looked over the display at the make-up counter. “At first I liked it because I never get to do that much at home. But eating at a restaurant gets tiring after a while. I’d really love to have some of Mama’s cooking every now and then.”
Dinah’s fingers ran across the lipsticks. “Look at these new colors! The Patriot Collection—“
Garnet read the labels, “Coral Sunrise, Sentry Scarlett—” She needed something with orange tones for her red hair.
“This one!” Dinah said. “Pink Salute!” She put a smudge on her wrist and held it up next to her lips while she studied the effect in the conveniently placed mirror. “So, can you borrow the kitchen?”
Garnet opened the Coral Sunrise. “Mrs. Tarpley said I could. I think I could manage her electric stove.”
Dinah nodded. “So, you fix him dinner. He’ll be tired of that mess hall food and the restaurant too. He’ll love it! What’s his favorite?”
“He really likes his mother’s cornbread and her fried chicken—“
“Honey,” Dinah said, “don’t compete with his mama! Try something different. What’s new that he likes?”
Garnet put a dot of Coral Sunrise on her wrist. “He’s mentioned spaghetti, but, gosh, I don’t know how to begin with that.”
“Oh, look at this one!” Dinah handed her Lady Lieutenant Red. “You’ll be a real doll!” She picked up an eyebrow pencil. “I have just the recipe for the spaghetti. Easy as pie. The secret is canned sauce.”
“Saves a mess of chopping and cooking. Let’s go to the grocery store. Are you buying that lipstick?”
Garnet held the Lady Lieutenant Red up to her lips. It was a dark red-orange. Why not?
After the grocery store, she and Dinah took a detour to see the Barton’s famous rose garden, now in full bloom. She’d never imagined there were so many colors. They got lost in the maze in the middle, surrounded by the perfume of the flowers.
It was almost 6:30 when Garnet and Dinah entered Mrs. Tarpley’s hallway laughing. Garnet felt deliciously cosmopolitan to be out so late.
Mrs. Tarpley met them. “Mrs. James, your husband was here,” she said. “I told him that you two girls had gone into town for the afternoon. I think he went to look for you.”
Garnet’s mood fell like a dropped flat iron. Martin had said nothing about being free today. She hadn’t expected him until Friday. She glanced at Dinah in dismay.
“Uh-oh, I’d better check on my husband too,” Dinah said. She hurried out the door with her packages.
Garnet didn’t know what to do. Go after him or wait? “How long ago was he here?”
“Less than an hour,” Mrs. Tarpley replied. “I thought you might have met him on the way.”
She might’ve, Garnet thought guiltily, but she and Dinah had been lollygagging in the rose garden and lost track of time.
“I’ll just put my bags upstairs and then see if I can go meet him,” she said to Mrs. Tarpley, who’d been watching her with interest. Judging what a frivolous wife I am, Garnet thought. Gallivanting around town while my husband is looking for me.
“I’ll tell him to wait if he comes in, honey,” Mrs. Tarpley said.
“I won’t go all the way. If I don’t see him, I’ll be right back.”
Mrs. Tarpley nodded. “Well, then.” She went back into her living room, which featured a bouquet of artificial roses in a milk glass vase on the coffee table. The radio blared, “Can a girl from a small town in Oklahoma find love in the big city? Stay tuned . . .”
Garnet ran up the stairs and flung her shopping bags on the bed. She pulled a comb through her hair and dropped it on the dresser. It knocked her lipsticks onto the floor. She picked them up, considered using the new Lady Lieutenant Red, but applied her usual Ginger Rose. She rushed down the stairs and out the door.
She walked as briskly as she could without breaking into a trot. Twilight was easing into the sky. Here she’d been out running around, as Mama would say. Mama had darkly used that phrase about Uncle Frank’s wife, who had caused him no end of unhappiness.
And now she’d let Martin down.
The streetlight came on. And, thankfully, just ahead of her she saw Martin striding towards her.
“Red,” he said. “I brought supper from the diner.” He held up a bag.
“Oh, good,” she said. Martin didn’t hug her or kiss her or take her arm, but then that was always his way. He was shy in public, like she was.
They walked in silence for a few minutes.
“I’m sorry I missed you, Martin. Really sorry.”
“I didn’t know I could come until after lunch. It was a last minute thing.” He shifted the bag, but he didn’t put his arm through hers. “All afternoon I’ve been thinking about seeing you, Red.”
“I’m glad you could get free.”
“Wish I could have let you know.”
“I’m sorry. I should have been at the room.”
Martin didn’t disagree.
The next weekend Garnet made the spaghetti. But Martin had been late, something about a truck breaking down, and the spaghetti had turned mushy by the time he arrived. He hadn’t liked it at all.
She had been so proud of making him this exotic dish that she’d heard him talk about, and he hadn’t wanted it. Except for the sponginess, she thought it tasted pretty much like the version that Dinah had made for her when she showed her how to cook the recipe.
Garnet scrubbed at the spaghetti stuck to the side of the pan. The Brillo pad made a satisfying scritching as though scraping though the metal layer. Maybe she could rub a hole in it.
Martin was upstairs listening to the radio he’d brought her last week. She’d protested at the extravagance, but it was only rented, he’d said.
Martin had seemed unusually tired at dinner. He’d just moved the food around on his plate. He folded and unfolded his napkin while she cleared the table.
“Red,” he’d said at the end of the meal, “I want you to have your picture made, a color picture so I can look at it and remember just what you look like tonight.”
She was straightening up Mrs. Tarpley’s kitchen, trying to leave it spotless. Her slip was sticking to her back, her nose was sweaty and powderless, and her lipstick had faded. “Like I look right now?”
“Yes, tonight, right now,” he smiled.
She was exasperated. But maybe it wasn’t the spaghetti that was bothering him. She stopped tidying and looked at him. When he’d arrived, she’d looked as nice as could be, but the Texas heat and the steamy kitchen took a toll.
“Well, on one condition.”
“I get to freshen my lipstick.”
He grinned. “OK, fresh lipstick.” His face relaxed, but a furrow stayed between his eyebrows. “Don’t take too long with those dishes.” Then he’d ambled upstairs to wait for her.
Music from Mrs. Tarpley’s radio swelled in the living room and interrupted her thoughts with a gloomy popular ballad. “I’ll walk alone, they’ll ask me why . . . .”
Martin’s mood worried her. She couldn’t tell what he was thinking. The army was changing him little by little, and this was only basic training. What would happen when he faced the real-life war?
Martin had brought home two alarming pamphlets that had been written for the soldiers and their families. She read that Martin would “become a competent rifle shot, a good bayonet fighter, and proficient in the use of grenades.” The other cautioned that care in handling weapons was crucial: “These weapons are made to kill.”
She jerked her attention back to the pan. A spot more brilliant than the rest of the pan shone up at her. She could see her reflection in it.
She dreaded seeing a stranger in Martin. Maybe he dreaded seeing that in her too.
The next week the trainees had their last tests and went on their bivouac—the final field training exercise.
Garnet didn’t sit around waiting, however. With Dinah, her days had filled up. She and Dinah joined the coffee-making team at the USO, assembled packets for the Red Cross, and took a first aid course. She wrote postcards to her family. She had her picture made, in color, with the Ginger Rose lipstick. She started learning to type.
Dinah had also convinced her to take bridge lessons at the USO. She’d hesitated at first. Mama and Dad had never allowed cards into the house and regarded all card games as a road to sin. Surprisingly, she discovered that she was quite good at bridge and enjoyed it. She didn’t know Martin’s opinion about cards. Maybe he wouldn’t like it, but, really, it wasn’t like she was playing poker and gambling.
All this busyness kept her mind off the future. Martin had brought home two alarming pamphlets that had been written for the soldiers and their families. She read that Martin would “become a competent rifle shot, a good bayonet fighter, and proficient in the use of grenades.” The other cautioned that care in handling weapons was crucial: “These weapons are made to kill.” As if that wasn’t chilling enough, a form for a will was included.
All part of Martin’s war work.
When she was in bed alone, she stared at the ceiling, listening to the Baby Ben clock tick, and thinking about Martin shooting someone, or, worse, having to use the bayonet. He’d told her about bayonet practice with the straw filled dummies, but, he said, he didn’t know how it would be when you were looking the other feller in the face.
Maybe coming to Texas was a bad idea. At home, she could keep the thoughts at bay, but here, they were hard to suppress. Martin had suggested that she go home for the two weeks of the bivouac to save money. But, now that she was here, she wanted to remain. By the time she took the train home and back again--and who knew if she could be sure of a seat all the way home or back because soldiers got priority—it would cost about as much as for her to stay.
So Garnet stayed and kept busy as she could with her “war work.”
She and Dinah went to town one day and had a makeover in the department store. The lady at the counter styled her like a Hollywood actress. “You have lovely red hair, my dear, like Rita Hayworth. Your make-up should accentuate that,” the lady said, applying the Lady Lieutenant Red. Garnet studied the glamour girl in the mirror. Mama sure wouldn’t know me, she thought.
“Gosh,” Dinah said. “Your husband will think he’s married to a movie star!” An assistant was finishing her manicure with Pink Salute nail polish to match her lips.
“You’re quite a dish yourself!” Garnet smoothed a lock of hair back. She’d gotten bangs a couple of days ago. “I don’t know.” She grinned. “But I couldn’t go around Elizabethville like this!”
Finally it was the day that the company was due back. Garnet figured that first news would come downtown at the USO, so she’d gone there to practice her typing. Clack, clack, clack, the percussive whack of the keys felt good. Her speed was improving. Maybe she could get an office job when she had to go back home. She thought she’d like that better than teaching.
She checked her watch and took a coffee break. She was making a fresh pot when she heard a commotion outside. “The trucks are coming back!” a voice was crying. Garnet, Dinah, and the other wives rushed outside. They could see the long line of trucks crossing through the square at the end of the street.
“It’ll take me a couple of hours to get through my Hollywood routine,” Dinah said. “And they won’t let them go until they check in equipment and have roll call and what all. I’m headed home.”
Garnet joined her, and they hurried home. The other wives had left the USO and were scattering to their rooms also.
Garnet did not use all of the make-up recommended by the consultant, but she did add a little eyebrow pencil, some powder, a tiny bit of rouge, and—after hesitating—the Lady Lieutenant Red. Its bold color brought out the green in her eyes. The Baby Ben ticked steadily as she carefully combed her bangs. Glamorous enough?
She settled herself on Mrs. Tarpley’s front porch so that she could see down the street. The sun plodded across the sky. She fanned herself with the newspaper. The hands on her watch seemed stuck, but it ticked steadily.
Men began to appear, trudging, striding, lumbering down the street. She stood at the porch rail to look. There was Dinah’s husband; she recognized his swaggering gait. Where was Martin?
She walked to the street and continued down the sidewalk. She would meet him.
Two men were approaching. The one in front trotted along, stopping to re-tie a shoe. The slower one trod along steadily. Neither was her Martin. She peered beyond them, shading her eyes against the sun.
She nodded politely at the trotting one as he passed her. “Evening,” he said.
She nodded at the second one as he neared.
“Garnet?” the second one said, “Red!” and he grabbed her in a hug. She stiffened and nearly pushed back before realizing that this skinny man with a thin mustache and beard and unruly hair was indeed Martin. Hugging her on the street. Well.
“You—you look taller,” she said.
“You look different too,” he hugged her again and lightly kissed her. The mustache and beard tickled her chin. “I didn’t waste time shaving. ‘Sides, I wanted you to see my mustache. What do you think?”
“It’s got a good start,” she said, realizing how proud he was of it. “But wait.” She pulled out her handkerchief and wiped the faint trace of lipstick from his lips.
“Bright stuff,” he said.
“It’s Lady Lieutenant Red. It’s new.”
“Doesn’t look like any lieutenants I’ve seen!” He put his arm around her, and they started walking. “You didn’t wear this in your picture, did you? I like the old color.”
“No, the picture has the old lipstick.” She hadn’t recognized her own husband, and he’d only been gone for two weeks. But then, he hadn’t known her right off either.
Martin approved the picture. “It really looks like you. Promise me you won’t change anything. Just stay yourself.”
“You promise too,” she said.
“Well—” Martin paused. “Of course, I’ll always be the same ol’ Tennessee boy. That can’t change. Same ol’ Martin.” He kissed her, his beard scratching her chin.
He shaved that evening. The next day, he had his picture made for Garnet.
The black and white photograph showed a young man who was posed like every other young man. Uniform in uniform, Garnet thought. He looked both very young and also so much older. His uniform was distinguished only by his marksmanship badge. When he came home, he would have more ribbons to put there. Let none of them be the Purple Heart.
A few days later, Martin arrived clutching a piece of paper in his hand. Garnet felt queasy.
“Here’s the good news,” he said. “It’s not the paratroopers. I made sure that I flunked that test. Infantry.” He handed her the cheap copy paper with the orders. It began, “The following soldiers are directed to report . . . .” The uneven type scrambled the words.
“It doesn’t say so, but it’s Europe,” he filled in. “That’s as much as I know.”
She focused on his name in the double column list. An invasion of Europe was coming, had to come, and soon. War for him, at last.
All of their life in storage rose before her eyes—the rocking chairs, the dining room table and chairs, their sheets and pillowcases—their small collection of household things—all useless for now—until when?
She hugged him. The paper crackled in her hand. “Oh, Martin.” She dropped the paper as they kissed. This moment, hold on.
He pulled back. “Can’t stay tonight, just got a little time off to tell you. Gotta go.” And he was down the stairs.
Tick, tick, the hand on the Baby Ben clock sliced through the minutes, cutting away the time. Then Martin would be gone—minutes, hours, days, for the duration—and their togethering would be in storage too. Aloneness loomed, her war.
They had moved into the little upstairs apartment, really a large room, just after Christmas, about six weeks after their wedding. The partly furnished room included a bed, a Warm Morning coal stove, and, in an alcove, a tiny refrigerator. It had a noisy motor on the top of it, and that had taken some getting used to, especially at night. She always woke slightly whenever the whir kicked in. Garnet had the use of their landlord’s kitchen on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and every morning from 5 to 6:30 to get Martin’s breakfast before he walked to the plant for the day shift. The entrance to the apartment was at the back of the house, where there was a small porch at the top of the stairs with just enough room to sit to the side of the railing.
When she had first arrived—Martin had been there for a couple of days—and after she’d taken a look around, he said, “I have a surprise for you. Follow me.” He led her down the stairs to the basement door. He switched on a dim light, and she saw two large paper covered lumps sitting in the space in front of the furnace. The sharp smell of the coal filled the warm air. An orange glow showed around the furnace door.
Martin pulled away the paper cover on one of the lumps. It was a rocking chair with a padded back and seat upholstered in a maroon, blue, and cream striped fabric. The other was its match.
“Oh!” she said. She loved maroon, but she seldom wore it because of her reddish hair.
She turned and hugged Martin. She’d wondered if they’d have to do their sitting in the hard dining room chairs or on the bed.
“Let’s try it out,” he said, sitting down and pulling her onto his lap.
“Will it hold both of us?” she said. The arms and legs of the chairs looked so delicate.
The seat gave a tiny creak as he snuggled her. They laughed.
“Now, Mrs. James,” Martin said. “we’ll take these upstairs and then have supper. What’s on?”
She thought quickly. “Mr. James, you have a great treat in store—peanut butter and jelly.”
His face wrinkled. “Not a cooking night, is it? There’s a grocery store down the street. Let’s see if it has any bananas. I believe I could eat a peanut butter and banana sandwich.”
That was their first meal in their first home, entertained by the wooden-cased Radiola radio she’d bought with her check from teaching. It sat on the table with the Baby Ben clock, another of her purchases.
So many evenings that first winter they would relax in the rocking chairs and listen to the radio, the room warm, the clock ticking, and the world far away.