Marjorie’s Story: In Which Frances Reads Her the Riot Act
Here’s another installment in Marjorie’s story. The setting is the Corrigan home, to which Marjorie Corrigan has returned after fainting at the Orpheum during a showing of The Big Parade. (To read the first episode, go here )
“If you wouldn’t attend those ghastly picture shows, this never would have happened,” my father’s wife, Frances, scolded that evening, after getting an earful from Sadie Miller, who heard it from Penelope Blake, who got it straight from Eugenia Wardlow herself. “I’m mortified. Simply mortified.”
Feeling more like an obstinate youngster than a woman of twenty-five, I avoided her gaze and watched her hands tense and flex as she kneaded bread dough.
“‘Family way,’ indeed,” she sputtered. “That woman is a—a—” She gave the dough an extra-vigorous punch—whether on Eugenia Wardlow’s behalf or mine was unclear. “Well, being a Christian woman, I can’t say what she is. But she spreads a nasty rumor quicker than ‘one if by land, two if by sea.’ I’ll be on the telephone all evening, trying to set things right.” She straightened up and blew a strand of hair out of her face. “Honestly, if Eugenia weren’t the only florist in town, I’d order your wedding flowers elsewhere, just to spite her.”
“That’s what I hate about small-town life,” I said. “Everybody’s always poking their noses into everyone else’s business and offering up their own skewed versions of things. Since when is fainting a sign of the stork, anyway?”
“Since busybody spinsters like Eugenia decided to liven up the gossip mill.” Frances glanced at the 1925 calendar on the wall. “I suppose we could move the wedding
My heart lurched. “Earlier! That would only make matters worse. Then people would for sure think—would think—”
She sighed. “I suppose you’re right. We’d never be able to pull it off, anyway. So much remains to be done: the guest list, the invitations . . .” She paused. “You ought to see Doctor Perkins. Best make sure you’re not coming down with something.”
“I’m fine, really. The theater was simply roasting, and I . . .”
“Yes, Helen told me all about it.” Frances returned to kneading. “Marjorie, you’re a grown woman. I can’t stop you from going to the pictures, but I can at least insist you stop taking Helen with you. At her age she doesn’t need to see all that romantic folderol and get strange ideas in her head.”
Strange ideas like there’s room for a little romance and adventure in a person’s life. Like there’s a world beyond Kerryville. Anyway, at fifteen, Helen practically knew more about the birds and the bees than I did. But all I said out loud was, “Yes, ma’am.”
The back door swung open and my older brother Charlie shuffled in. “Hi, all. When’s supper?”
Frances covered the bread pan with a cloth. “Ten minutes. We’ll eat early since your father’s out of town.”
“Hey, sis, you all right? I heard you made quite a scene at the Orpheum. Swooning over some love scene?” He batted his eyelashes.
“Very funny. You’d like it. It’s a good war story.”
“‘Good’ and ‘war’ don’t belong in the same sentence. “ His face darkened. “I lived it. Why would I want to watch it?”
I changed the subject. “Where did you hear I fainted?”
“Some fellows were talking about it over at Riley’s.”
“Oh, that’s just swell,” I mumbled, embarrassed to be the object of gossip but secretly relieved not to detect any alcohol on my brother’s breath. When he’d returned from the war, broken in body and spirit, he’d too often drown his pain in whiskey, Prohibition or no Prohibition. With Frances active in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, those were some tense years in the Corrigan household. Thankfully, as far as I knew, he’d remained sober for the last year or so. He’d gone back to church, too. Still, I couldn’t break the habit of expecting a whiff of alcohol on his breath and felt relieved when there was none.
“Don’t worry, I set them straight.” Charlie raised his good arm. “I’ll pummel any goon who gets out of line. I’ll go wash up. Glad you’re okay, sis.” He loped out of the room.
Frances pulled a pitcher from the icebox and set it on the table. “I do wish he wouldn’t hang around a tavern on Sunday with all that riffraff. It’s not seemly.”
I set out plates. “It’s not a tavern, it’s a soda fountain. And they’re hardly riffraff. Just friends he grew up with.”
“It was a tavern before Prohibition. I don’t trust that Riley not to keep a bottle stashed under the counter.” Frances frowned. “Charlie’d get farther in life if he chose a better class of companions. You don’t see the Cavendishes wasting Sunday afternoons at Riley’s—or at the Orpheum, for that matter.”
“Who cares what the Cavendishes do?” I muttered, knowing full well that at least one of the two of us cared deeply. The Cavendishes were Kerryville aristocracy. Doctor Cavendish ran Kerryville General Hospital. Mrs. Cavendish ran the Hospital Auxiliary, the W. C. T. U., and practically everything else. Frances, anxious for the Corrigans to rise in society, coveted the Cavendish seal of approval on everything from how we spent our Sundays to who our friends were. My engagement to Doctor Richard Brownlee was a jewel in her crown.
“I dread to think what your father will say,” Frances continued. “Fortunately he knows Eugenia Wardlow’s a ninny. What about Richard? You’d better telephone him right away, before he hears it from somebody else.”
“I’m seeing him tonight for dinner. Speaking of which, I’d better freshen up.” I stood, bone-weary and not of a mind to discuss any more of my personal business with Frances
She crossed her arms. “You know, you two would already be married by now, if only—”
“If only I hadn’t dragged my feet on setting a date,” I finished, sparing her the trouble of repeating herself for the thousandth time.
“He’s wanted to marry you for ages, and you keep putting him off. It’s no wonder people have started . . . speculating.”
Heat rose in my chest. “Let them speculate. Anyway, I’m not putting him off any longer.” September eighteenth, my wedding day, loomed just on the other side of summer.
“He’s a real catch, Marjorie,” Frances admonished, “and you’re not getting any younger.”
“Thanks.” I made tracks for the door, desperate to escape the conversation.
“Marrying Richard is the wisest decision you’ve ever made. You’ll be set for life,” she called after me, “if you don’t spoil your chance.”
On the staircase I bumped into the eavesdropping Helen.
“Was she sore?”
“A little. She’ll get over it. But no more pictures for you for a while.”
“Aw.” She trailed into my room. “Have you finished my dress for Spring Fling?”
Helen would be making her dramatic debut at the high school’s end-of-the-year program, reciting “The Wreck of the Hesperus” to a packed, and likely sweltering,
auditorium. I was her wardrobe mistress for the event.
“Not yet, Miss Impatience. I’ve been a little busy, creating a town scandal.”
“Will you finish it soon?”
“Not if you don’t stop pestering me. Besides, you don’t need it until Spring Fling.”
“Can I at least see it?”
I surrendered. “Oh, all right. Here. Mind the pins.”
She held up the pale violet frock—an old one of mine that I was altering to fit her—and swayed to and fro in front of the pier glass, glowing. “Oh, Marjie, it’s the cat’s meow.”
“That shade suits you. Brings out your eye color.”
“Am I pretty, Marjie?”
“Pretty is as pretty does.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Now you sound like Frances.”
I cringed. Sounding like Frances was not one of my goals in life.
“You might be pretty,” I teased. “Maybe the tiniest little bit. When your horns aren’t showing.”
She stuck out her tongue. “Oh, you’re a hot sketch. Be serious.”
I smiled. “You look like our mother.”
Her eyes widened. “I do? Honest?”
“Honest. And she was stunning.”
Helen was silent a moment as she absorbed that thought.
“But remember what the Bible says,” I said. “‘Charm is deceitful, beauty is vain . . .’“
“‘. . . but the woman who fears the Lord shall be praised, ’” we finished together.
“That’s Scripture,” I added. “Not Frances.”
“I know. Mrs. Varney had us memorize it in Phoebe Circle. That reminds me. She wants to know if you’ll help out next fall.”
“Help out with what?”
“Phoebe Circle. After you’re back from your honeymoon, of course. She says the circle is getting too large for her to handle all by herself. I overheard her tell Superintendent Lewis that we’re quite a handful,” she added with pride.
“I can imagine.”
“Aw, she’s just getting old. Anyway, she said you used to love Phoebe Circle, and she’s hoping you’ll come back and help lead it. She said she’s been planning to speak to you about it at church, but you always disappear right after the service. Which is true.” She tossed me an accusatory look.
I made no reply. Mrs. Varney was right. As a girl I’d been active in Phoebe Circle and other church activities. But that was before the Lord chose to take away everything that mattered most to me. His prerogative, of course. “Thy will be done,” said the prayer I still dutifully recited. But for the past few years I’d found it hard to pay Him much more than a perfunctory visit on Sunday morning. And even that was largely due to Frances’ insistence that “nice people” go to church.
“I’m sure she’ll ask you about it herself,” Helen concluded. “I only said I’d mention it.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
“It’d be fun, having you for a leader.”
“You just think I’d let you get away with more high jinks than Mrs. Varney does,” I teased. “You’d be surprised what a tough old bird your sister can be.”
She took one last twirl and handed me the dress.
“I don’t know about that. But you sure are a whiz with a needle and thread.”
As she whirled out of the room, I looked down at the half-sewn fabric in my hand, troubled. If only all of life’s problems could be so easily mended.
(Watch for further installments, coming soon to a blog near you.)