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Authors: Emily Hahn

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I suppose I can catch on in time, she thought.

The clerk at the newspaper counter stared at the gloomy young lady who was such a long time making up her mind between chocolate bars and licorice. Francie swung from the depths of the blues to a kind of elation. If she was to be a martyr, well, she'd at least have the joy of martyrdom.

They're darlings, both of them, she thought. I ought to be glad I can take care of them. I
will
be cheerful, darn it.

It should have been like one of those soap ads where the harassed housewife finds a new kind of magic suds. Daydreaming, Francie built up a picture of herself as a ministering angel, tripping around a shining, happy house, bringing breakfast to Aunt Norah in bed, plumping up the sitting-room cushions for Pop when he came home footsore and weary from—well, from what? Trying to find a job? She didn't really think Pop would tramp the streets of Jefferson begging for employment. He could be footsore after golf, she decided. But Pop had never really cared for cushions.

It was not easy to get fun out of dramatic imaginings, not when reality insisted on intruding. Still, she could retain some comfort from the thought that she really was a martyr. A genuine martyr. Even a sense of humor couldn't take that fact away.

She thought, going short of money is no joke. For instance, I certainly shouldn't have bought this suit. Still, it
is
a good one; I'll probably be glad before I'm through that I got it.

She went again to the door to look for the old gray car. Nobody was in sight—nobody she knew, at any rate—but a whiff of the autumn air, smelling of burning leaves, and the sight of a man in a plaid lumber jacket and peaked cap, a costume she hadn't seen lately in New York, suddenly evoked memories of her years here at home. She thought of school days and the happy excitement of waking up on a crisp cold morning, running barefoot to close the window, hurrying to get dressed and out into the air. She wondered how the old gang was getting on. She knew it was broken up; she was fairly well informed of the facts, but it was still difficult to realize that the kids of yesterday wouldn't all be around. She must call up her oldest friend Ruth that afternoon and arrange to inspect the new baby and the new house. That part should be fun. And Glenn, who had been her beau, how would things be with Glenn? She had been trying to put off thinking what Jefferson would be like were it not for Glenn.

There at last was the car, and Pop at the wheel, looking for her. Her new duty-bound life was about to begin. She adjusted a cheerful smile, and ran out to the curb and waved.

CHAPTER 2

Aunt Norah's step on the stairs was slow, though not fumbling; Francie knew she was carefully feeling her way along the banister. It would have made everything go quicker to give her a hand, but the girl had learned in the first few days at home that Aunt Norah didn't want to be helped. Anyway, why should everything go quicker? Nobody was going anywhere, Francie reflected. She sighed sharply, thinking of the up-and-down emotions of New York, where one was always in a hurry, always looking forward to the next moment, or fearing it, but anyway reacting. Here, life was even and peaceful, and who wants to be peaceful at twenty-two? For Aunt Norah, of course, it was different. She wanted peace with independence.

“I'm not an old lady yet,” she had said, warningly crisp, “and it will be much better for all of us if the other people in this house just let me make my own way, at my own time. Ada never fussed. Don't you fuss.”

So now Francie stayed where she was, in the kitchen stacking plates. She checked up on what was happening out there through her ears rather than her eyes, as Aunt Norah probably did herself. Aunt Norah moved deliberately across the hall, out the front door. Francie heard her voice; probably she was exchanging greetings across the fence with the lady next-door.

As a matter of fact, there was a sort of timetable of life in Jefferson, in spite of Francie's impression that nothing ever happened. There were parties, there were celebrations. What
didn't
happen, she amended her thoughts silently, were social affairs like those she had got so used to in the East; informal, impromptu parties, and theater expeditions and concerts. In Jefferson, they had family dinners and tea parties arranged well in advance. There had been a tea party the day before at Ruth's. Ruefully scraping at a skillet, Francie thought about it.

Ruth, very much the pretty young matron in her pretty new house, had made a great thing of the fact that Francie was to be guest of honor. “You must come ten minutes earlier than anybody else, of course,” she had said on the telephone. “You're the guest of honor, and you must stand near the door when they come in.”

Francie, bewildered, said, “But Ruth, it's not a diplomatic reception or anything. I mean, of course I'll be there early to help and all that, if you like, but need I stand rooted on one spot all afternoon?”

“Oh, you and your casual New York ways!” Ruth made her voice light and gay, but Francie realized her feelings were hurt. Whoever would have expected Ruth to be so touchy?

Worried, Francie dressed that afternoon in great haste, not too meticulously. She hurried over a full half hour ahead of time (three-thirty, Ruth had said they'd begin to come—a queer time for tea, surely), only to be met by her dear old best friend's sorrowful wail, “Francie! You aren't wearing a hat!”

This really was bewildering. “Should I have?” asked Francie. “I never used to. None of us did.”

“But this is different,” said Ruth. “It's different now. The girls will all be wearing hats, especially since you've been abroad and in New York and all that, and if
you
don't wear one, can't you see how they'll talk? They'll say that you just don't think we're worth dressing up for in little old Middle West Jefferson. Oh Francie, couldn't you—I mean, I'd lend you one of mine, but they'd all recognize it.”

Intimidated, Francie said, “I'll run home and get one of mine. It isn't far.”

She had done so, and returned breathless after the first guest arrived. By that time she was in a slightly spoiled mood. It was hard to be gracious to all these girls who were strangers, or at least seemed to be.

“Here's Gracie. You remember Gracie Waller,” Ruth would say, and Francie would grasp Gracie's hand and say, “Of course. How are you, Gracie?” and try not to show how staggered she was that this thoroughly grown-up, dignified young matron should be Gracie, the most precocious girl in the class. But she'd also been the one who always got lost at the school parties out somewhere behind the gymnasium, where they were dancing, and reappeared later much the worse for wear.

Or Ruth would come up dragging a grim-looking girl with a bun and introduce her as “Isabelle Hunter—remember old Izzy?” and leave Francie wondering what on earth to say to a stranger who used to be her most hated rival for the affections of—who? Whatever had been that football player's name? Gone, gone with the old spites, the old longings. And gone, too, was the one boy friend she remembered vividly—Glenn. The first day back she had learned that he was working in a law office in San Francisco. Whatever Jefferson might have been with Glenn—well, better not think of it, she told herself.

They had sandwiches of thin slices of bread, and a number of salty little confections that would have gone better with soup. They had hot rolls, and home-made coffee cake, and tea or coffee. Everybody scolded Ruth jovially for serving so much. They talked about their diets. They sat in a prim circle and, after asking Francie politely about New York, chattered about babies, husbands, engagements, mothers, and church. Most of them were married, otherwise they would probably have left Jefferson. There couldn't have been much in town to do, Francie reflected for a career woman.

It was bewildering at first, but after a cup of coffee and a cookie Francie began to find it charming, too. She had known these girls when they were long-legged brats together, running from one house to another to play all through the summer, busy with their games and their secret societies and feuds and makings-up. She had known them in high school when they took to giggling loudly when the boys walked by, and kept diaries. And here they were at last, young ladies in high heels and hats (Ruth had been quite right about the hat) with adult preoccupations—family troubles, jobs, all the things they had relegated to their parents in the days before Francie went away. And they were all so busy! Francie felt an envious pang, thinking of how busy they were with their clubs and their hobbies and their work. The others who weren't there were all away at school, and no doubt they were busy too. Some of the boys were in the Service. Whereas she was only running the house for Aunt Norah.…

A rustle of newspaper in the living room woke her from her sad thoughts. Pop was there, smoking his morning cigar and killing time. Did the crackling sound impatient? Francie thought it did, but her own movements were quick and jerky as she rinsed the plates and stacked them in the washer in the pattern Ada had recommended as most effective. She herself was impatient, and she may have been reading feelings that weren't there into Pop. It was hard to get used to him taking life easy. It was strange to think he wouldn't soon be going to his office or embarking on a series of telephone calls, giving directions to his secretary, perhaps ordering her to buy tickets so that he might start off for the Philippines or Haiti or somewhere else far away and exciting.

She was so sure Pop must be fretting that she went to the door and peered in at him. No, he was sitting there looking cheerful, positively cheerful. He wasn't aware of her scrutiny. Francie went back to the sink, walking hurriedly; she was always in a hurry with the housework, though there was no need for haste. She was eager to learn all about this new, distasteful setup. She wanted to prove to herself—and to Aunt Norah and Pop, of course—that she could be as efficient as anybody when she set her mind to it. It had been rather a comedown, and still was in a way, to discover that the tasks weren't nearly as demanding as she had expected. Dishwashing? Well, anybody can wash dishes, and here it was a mere matter of learning to work the machine. Cooking? That was still rather tricky. Francie knew there were great areas of the subject that she could explore if she went in for it with a whole heart. But Aunt Norah said Ada had rather got out of the way of cooking a lot of elaborate meals, what with frozen foods and supermarkets and, in a pinch, the corner drugstore. Her easel and paints hadn't yet arrived from New York, and she was restless without them.

The front door opened again; the floor creaked. Aunt Norah came into the kitchen.

“You're not overdoing things, dear, I hope,” she said genially. “I hate to see you waste your time at the sink. If you've got anything of your own to do this morning, you'd better get it accomplished before eleven-thirty. Remember, we're going to Uncle Robert's for lunch.”

“Oh, Aunt Norah, I did forget!” Francie mopped vigorously at the draining board and remembered in time not to sigh, as she wanted to do. Of all the trials of coming home, this program of going to see every relative anywhere within a radius of ten miles was the worst. It wasn't that she disliked meeting the distant cousins and aunts-by-courtesy again. Without complications, it would have been pleasant. But Francie hadn't been home long at all before she found out that she was serving as a bone of contention in a community that seemed to want to contend. Normally a placid girl, this quality of theirs, this almost jovial belligerence, wearied and worried her. Her Cousin Biddy was the worst. Biddy was really always in the family's hair. She worked at it. She lived across town, but every morning she would telephone Aunt Norah in order to plan Francie's life for the next twenty-four hours.

“Frances Beatrice simply
must
go and have dinner with Bill and Marie,” she would say flatly. “They're beginning to notice that she hasn't done anything about them, Norah. Marie said something yesterday: I could see she wasn't pleased.”

Aunt Norah always did what she could to smooth matters over.

“Well, I don't know when she can manage it, Biddy. The child's doing as well as she can. What day this past week has she had free, I'd like to know?”

“Now Norah, you know that's not the sort of excuse Marie is going to accept; she heard about Frances Beatrice's having been to Claire's house night before last. After all, Claire's not even related.”

It was typical of Biddy that she should insist on calling Francie by that form of her name which had been given up by everybody else years back when Francie was in high school. By dint of pleading tears and plain downright persistence Francie had persuaded the rest of her world to forget that she had ever been christened “Frances Beatrice.” But nobody ever succeeded in changing Biddy's mind when she wanted to remember things and the things she remembered were somehow, always, just those you wished would be forgotten. It was always Biddy who would remind you at a large gathering of the humiliating time you overate at the picnic when you were seven years old, and were sick all over somebody's best dress. That sort of thing. She was also a firm believer in telling people things for their own good. Her relatives were all slightly afraid of Cousin Biddy, and Aunt Norah tried now to placate her.

“There was nothing in that, Biddy; Francie dropped in to see Claire, that was all—Claire did teach her in high school, you know—and she happened to stay on and eat with the family. Where's the harm in that?”

Francie, overhearing Aunt Norah's side of the conversation, drew near the telephone anxiously. “What have I done
now?”

But nobody ever took time to explain. Francie was merely the bone they fought over, she wasn't a member of the argument club.

However, since Aunt Norah seemed to be bearing the brunt for any gaucherie her household committed, Francie learned to be as considerate as possible. Pop agreed with her. With Aunt Norah they both made all the rounds. They went to Biddy's, and they appeased Marie, and they let Uncle Robert take them to the movies when he wanted to go. Francie went out of her way to inspect babies that her relatives' relatives had produced while she was out of town, and was scrupulous to pay every call her Aunt Norah recommended. All this activity was beginning to pall, especially as it seemed endless. Certainly Biddy remained as a steady sort of duty, self-renewing.

BOOK: Francie Comes Home
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