The Game

6 Jan

Another one of the entries I wrote for the Library of Virginia’s “The Dark Side” contest, a challenge to capture a moment in 1,000 words or less.  This one was inspired by a photograph of a storefront window in downtown Norfolk, 1915.

Harry C. Mann (1866–1926)
Schreier & Son Window Display, Norfolk, Virginia, 1915

“Oh,” said Dorothy, the small slope of her nose inches away from the shop window. “Oh. That’s my new favorite. Look at the lace along the edges of the bodice.” The perfect, pink circle of her lips fell open. “How much do you think it costs, Martha?”

“Every dress becomes your new favorite.” Martha kept one hand on the small of Dorothy’s back as if protecting her, or maybe holding her back. “And what does it matter? You already have five dresses for every occasion I could think of.”

“Play along, won’t you?” Dorothy caught Martha’s thin fingers in her own. Even at the end of the day, when the sun had set and department stores lining Main Street were flicking on their new and brilliant displays of electric lighting, she still reminded Martha of a sunbeam. “You’re smiling. You don’t mean it after all.”

“Of course not. I’ll play, if that’s what you want.”

Dorothy slipped her elbow into the crook of Martha’s arm. “Oh, good. What do you think of that one, then? The one with the empire waist and the cream silk bustle…”

They wandered down another block this way, Martha riveted by the dove-like cooing of Dorothy’s voice. She imagined what others would think, seeing them: two women in shirtwaists with fashionably tight sleeves, masses of neat curls piled at the nape of the neck. They could have been cousins – Dorothy the younger one, Martha a little older, taller, and plainer – out for an evening walk before supper. Thomas, Martha and her husband’s chauffeur, had parked by the edge of the street in their Model T. The car was still new enough that strangers eyed it with envy, but old enough that her husband didn’t fuss over it as if caring for a baby.  Thomas eyed them protectively every few minutes from beneath the gleaming black hood, then returned his attention to his cigarette.

“Did Edward come to see you today?” Martha asked suddenly.

Dorothy’s smile spread across her face slowly, like ripples in a lake. “Are you jealous?”

“Of course I’m not, I-”

“Well, he did.” Dorothy sighed. “Mother thinks I should marry him and have done with things.”

“And what do you think?”

She pursed her lips at a Thalhimer’s display across the street. “I think I don’t understand how you did it. Married John, I mean. Had William.”

Martha fussed at a few dark ringlets of Dorothy’s hair that had fallen loose. “It’s not  so bad. There’s much worse out there than John. And William was – is – a gift.”

“Oh, he’s darling. I just can’t imagine…marriage.” Dorothy broke away from her grasp then, pressing herself against the window of Schreier and Son. “Look. The one with the roses at the bust. That’s my favorite. Promise I won’t change my mind.”

“You’d look lovely in it,” Martha agreed. She stared at the way the electric lights brought out the russet streaks in Dorothy’s hair, her breath in her throat. “Should I buy it for you?” she said, feeling like a glass someone had filled until it overflowed. “Tomorrow, when they open?”

“Yes,” answered Dorothy. She stared at the mannequin’s shadowed eyelids, her posed arms. Something had lit up her eyes. “Can I ask you something else, Martha?”

Martha felt herself flushing. “Anything, of course.”

“Let’s imagine going somewhere else.  Away from here.”

“What?” She glanced back down the street. Thomas was still waiting for them, his head in his hands.

“We could go to California. Or Paris. Or Argentina, even. Somewhere for people who -”

“But you’d have to give up all your pretty clothes,” said Martha, desperation coloring her tone. Her voice sounded rusty and old.

“Play along, Martha.”

“I’m too tired.”

Dorothy put her hand to Martha’s face. “I’m nineteen.  You know what they say about girls who don’t get married, right?  Do you want me to be a spinster?”

She felt her body begin to warm. “I have William. And John.”

“John would remarry,” said Dorothy, careless.

“What would William think if he discovered that his mother had-”

“Shhh,” said Dorothy, gliding her fingers down Martha’s throat, playing at the sensible fabric of her sleeve before slipping her arm back into Martha’s. “We’ll walk some more, and think about it, and talk about it again when you take me to buy that dress tomorrow.”

Martha opened her mouth to speak, then exhaled the words into the cooling night air. They did not talk for several minutes. The heels of their shoes against the pavement now seemed loud and mechanically regular, like the clicking of typewriter keys. Eventually the thrumming of an engine crept up behind them, drowning even that noise.

“Miss Hartley?” It was Thomas, beside them in the Model T. He mopped his face with an oil-spotted rag, sweating even though it was October. His eyes flickered between the two of them. “It’s almost eight o’clock. Mister Hartley will be wondering where we’ve gotten off to.  ”

“Of course,” said Dorothy, and flung her arms around Martha like a little girl. It amazed her, sometimes, how Dorothy could change her whole character like robes to be slipped on and off. “Oh, what a grand walk! Drop me off on the way back to Martha’s, Thomas?  My mother will be waiting to serve supper.”

“Of course, Miss Wilson,” he said, shifting his weight back and forth. They climbed into the car, their noses filled with the stark scent of motor oil. Wilson put his hand on the gear and they began to glide down Main Street. The night was filled with the shock of the brightly lit windows. Martha turned her head to glance back at the dress with rosebuds in the window of Schreier and Son, but it was already a blur. She let her eyes close. Her fingers found the patch of seat next to Dorothy and rested on it, soft as the gray light of the morning that hadn’t yet come.

Hope you enjoyed!  I tried to include a few details about the time period while keeping the focus of the story on Martha and Dorothy (and their lady love, in case you didn’t get that, duh).

Advertisements

3 Responses to “The Game”

  1. briandrush January 9, 2014 at 6:34 pm #

    Marvelous characterization — save this. It could easily be a part of something truly grand. You have the seeds of a story already planted. For example, suppose the two women do in fact decide to run away together. Add something intriguing about one of them, probably Dorothy. (Connection to an organized crime syndicate in California or Paris or an Argentine dictator. A magic amulet passed down from her mother that lets her make people believe what she says. Secret training from her father making her a deadly shot. I don’t know, something.) Have poor bewildered John and tearful William pursue them across the world while Martha struggles with her wrenched conscience. And so on.

    Just a couple of notes with a mind to copy-editing. In the next to last paragraph: “Of course,” said Dorothy, and flung her arms around Martha like a little girl. It amazed her, sometimes, how Dorothy could change her whole character like robes to be slipped on and off. — You begin with Dorothy as the actor, but this leaves the “her” in “It amazed her” with an initially confusing referent; it should probably be “It amazed Martha.” Secondly, in the last paragraph, either Dorothy’s last name or that of the chauffeur should probably be changed; both of them are Wilson and that’s a bit confusing, too.

    • elizabethballou January 10, 2014 at 10:46 am #

      I’ve actually been haunted by Martha’s character since I wrote about her (it’s such a common and relatable preoccupation to be transfixed by fantasies like running away when you’ve already got a family to take care of), and I love the idea of adding some elements of fantasy or action into the mix with something like a magic amulet! I need more practice writing novels anyway…

      You’re completely right about the referent matter – I’ll change that. And I noticed I’d carelessly made a typo in regards to the chauffeur’s name. I’ve changed it to Thomas, which is what it should be.

      As always, thanks for stopping by!

      • briandrush January 10, 2014 at 1:20 pm #

        Ooo, characters we’re haunted by are always great! Anyway — the craft of writing stories can be learned (things like plot arc, building tension, conflict, and so on). I’ve been learning it over time, and (I think) my work keeps getting better in that respect. If you feel like looking at it, my Amazon page is easy to find on a name search.

        You’ve got a gift for the part that can’t be learned, better than I am, one of the best I’ve ever encountered in fact. I really look forward to seeing books by you one day. You have at least one fan already.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: