Dinner For Four
GREG was looking Margaret over while they ate a hasty pickup supper on the kitchen table, and finally he said, “Are you as tired as you look?” “Just about, I guess,” Margaret said absently.
She didn’t believe, herself, that she could possibly look as tired as she was, and nobody but other mothers of only sons coming home on furlough could possibly have any conception of the depth of her weariness. Certainly no man could. The house was in order, though, and a trick in itself that was in these days of no help. Over all was the sheen of furniture polish and floor wax, the crisp look of fresh curtains. Steve would get in on the 6.25 tomorrow night in time for dinner. Tomorrow she would have only the flowers to arrange, dinner to get. She’d leave the roast in the oven and pick Greg up at his office on the way to the station.
“I want this furlough to be perfect, Greg,” she said, because always in the back of her mind was the thought that it might be Steve’s last. “Something he — he can remember.”
“Perfect by your standards or his?” Greg enquired casually, and Margaret’s quick flush indicated the direct hit. Rut she said, “Would there be a difference?” Greg smiled. He said, “We’re friends, aren’t we? Why not l>e frank?”
Greg was working around to the subject of Famey Mintern. The Minterns had come with the war. Famey’s father was an engineer who had something to do with plane propellers at one of the plants. Famey was by all odds the prettiest girl Margaret had ever laid eyes on. Steve had met her somewhere on his last furlough, just before he got his pilot’s commission. Margaret deliberately shut the door of her mind upon Famey. She had met Famey’s mother, who must have looked like Famey once, and still tried to.
“Steve will want his friends in, of course,” she said, “and I’ll have to give the impression of effortless ease. I asked Jan for dinner tomorrow night.”
Greg’s right eyebrow went up. He said, “You aren’t a little obvious, are you?”
“Obvious!” Margaret said. “Why, Jan Leyburn and Steve grew up together, didn’t they? She’s the girl across the street, just home from school, and she and Steve have been inseparable since knee-high ...” “Before Famey, that is,” Greg said.
“Famey?” Margaret said, as if the thought of Famey had never occurred to her. “Steve’s probably forgotten Famey’s alive.”
“If he has,” Greg said, dubious, “he’s done well— for his age and experience.”
Dressed for town the next night, Margaret looked around the house once more for anything amiss. The roast was in the oven, the potatoes browning in its juice. The table was set for four with the best china, newly burnished silver and crystal, flowers and candles. In the fireplace a fresh fire was laid, ready
for the match. She thought, “I hope Jan wears the blue dinner dress.”
Greg was waiting for her at the curb in front of his office building, and she slipped over to give him the wheel, relaxing while he battled traffic. He said, “Still on the warpath?”
“On the warpath?” Margaret said. “Greg, what an idea!”
At the station they were making their way toward the stairs up which Steve would come from the train, when Greg suddenly whistled under his breath. He said, “Do you see what I see?” Following his gaze Margaret saw Famey Mintern standing beside the guard, and just then Famey saw them. She smiled and held out both hands, one for each.
Under the hat that nobody living but Famey could wear, her hair was a striking auburn, and she had the fair translucent skin that went with it. Her eyes were a blue-green, flecked with brown, their lashes long and curling, the eyebrows beautifully arched. Her mouth, soft and moist and luscious, was a slash of scarlet. The collar of her fox jacket hugged the pointed chin, and beneath it the green wool skirt was brief and pencil slim above the slender length of gossamer hose, the fragile sandals.
“I expected you,” she said, graciously inclusive. “Steve wrote me you’d be here, and I guess he was .afraid I’d think the world was too much with us, but it’s quite all right. I mean it really is!”
“Nice day, isn’t it?” Greg said affably. But, flushed and yet smiling, Margaret said, “We’ll try to remember we’re only the family, Famey.” She walked over to the rail and stood looking down the stairs and biting her lip while her heart pounded. She saw Steve eventually, towering above the crowd on the stairs, uniform sitting well on his broad shoulders.
He looked up, saw her, and there was Steve’s same dear wide grin.
Margaret forgot everything else, and her eyes filmed over.
“Steve!” Famey’s voice was full and throaty. She leaned
over the railing, stretching her hands down to touch him. Heads in the swirling crowd turned. Then she was at the gate to meet him, and, standing on tiptoe, she drew Steve’s head down to hers. Watching, people in the crowd smiled covertly but sympathetically at the lovely young wife and the handsome officer husband. Famey held it until Greg, on edge, cleared his throat. Margaret felt faintly ill.
“Gosh, Famey,” Steve said, remembering them finally, “people will say we’re in love. Hello, Mom. How are you, Dad?”
Margaret sat looking straight ahead in the car on the way home, her hands clenched in her lap. Famey’s busy murmur in the back seat was for Steve’s ears alone—and his for hers. Greg drew up at the curb in front of the hotel where the Minterns lived, and Steve and Famey stood together at the curb for a last minute, with Famey’s arm linked in his.
“Don’t be too long, will you?” Famey looked
up at him with a flutter of the long curling lashes.
“Gwan!” Steve teased her, rapt. “I’ll be home and back and cooling my heels an hour before you’re dressed.”
He got into the front seat with Margaret and Greg, sat with an arm around Margaret’s shoulders.
“Boy, is it good to be home!” he said.
“You—you’re going out?” Margaret asked.
“All set for dinner at La Conga,” he said, “soon as I wash up.”
AT HOME Margaret basted the roast doggedly.
_ Upstairs Steve whistled in the bathroom. Greg came into the kitchen to say, “Well, where do we go from here?”
“Where can we go?” Margaret asked him, and giving it up, too, Greg settled beside the fire with the evening paper. Margaret heard Steve’s step on the stairs, and she went on tossing the salad. He stopped in the dining room, his coat over one arm, his cap in his hand, and stood looking at the table. Coming on to the kitchen he said, “Were you expecting us to dinner, Mom?”
“I was expecting you, Steve,” Margaret said.
“But who’s the fourth place for?” Steve said. And Margaret told him, “For—for Jan.”
“Gosh, I should’ve written you about Famey,” Steve said, “but I thought you’d know, Mom.” He stood looking at her a minute, his forehead wrinkled, and then he said, “How come you didn’t guess?”
“It did occur to me, Steve,” Margaret said honestly, “but I—I took a chance.”
Steve shifted his cap to his other hand, and with one hand under her chin, he tilted it up, stood looking down at her.
“Don’t you like my red headed girl, Mom?” he asked her.
“I just thought I’d ask Jan,” Margaret said, “and—and we’d all have a good time at home tonight.”
It hung in the air between them for a long minute, that choice for Steve, and then his face slowly closed. He glanced at his watch and said, “I’ll have to step on it. Tell Jan I said hello, and—and I’m
A slick chick’s kisses set Steve’s heart pounding... but it was the girl across the street who showed him romance is more than glamour
Margaret was making the gravy and Greg was mashing the potatoes for her when the door opened and Jan came in. Jan wore the blue dinner dress.
“My error, Jan,” Margaret explained, her cheeks pink. “Steve had other plans.”
“I wondered if he wouldn’t,” Jan smiled. “Let me see . . . I’ll fill the water glasses, shall I?”
“We had La Conga to beat, Jan,” Greg explained, while Jan held the ice tray under the faucet, “and we didn’t make it.”
“Famey’s a marvellous dancer,” Jan said. “She stops the show. I can just see them, can’t you? How’s your gin rummy tonight?”
“Still champion brand,” Greg said.
“I’ve been waiting for the chance to take you down,” Jan chuckled, “and tonight’s the night.”
It was while Margaret and Jan were washing the dishes after dinner that Jan, graduating in June,
broke the news that she had a chance to go back to school as an instructor, and she could do some work on her master’s degree at the same time.
“I had it all planned that I’d marry and have four children, two girls and two boys,” she laughed, “but some of us are going to get lost in the shuffle, and something tells me I’ll never be killed in the rush, so I’d better get set.”
Greg set the card table up before the fire. Margaret sat in a corner of the sofa, bent over her knitting. There was the reflection of flickering firelight in polished surfaces, the scent of flowers and burning apple wood. Greg dealt and turned up a wild deuce for Jan, and, chortling, Jan pounced upon it. Margaret looked up from her knitting.
The firelight brought out the healthy sheen in the wave of soft brown hair that rippled to Jan’s shoulders. Firelight was her element. She wasn’t a pretty girl, exactly; not strikingly pretty, at least. Take away Jan’s hair, the warmth of the blue eyes, the soundness and quick laughter that lurked behind them— take away the sensitive and generous mouth, and you wouldn’t know what it was about Jan that crept up on you. Still you never thought about how Jan looked or what she wore. It was Jan’s quick awareness that lingered, some quip, or something she had done, like
coming over tonight when she knew Steve would lie gone and they’d be alone.
“That’s two out of three,” she said to Greg. “I’ll give you another chance. Want to make it tliree out of five?”
“I’m not licked yet,” Greg said. It was 11 o’clock by the time he walked across the street with her and came home to stand with his back to the fire, puffing at his pipe. Margaret looked up from her knitting.
“Greg,” she said, “will you tell me one single thing Famey Mintern’s got beside looks?”
“Well . . . more looks,” Greg said.
“Did you ever in your life see anything like—like that scene at the station?” Margaret demanded.“Oh, yes,” Greg belittled it. “Last time I was in New York I had an hour to shoot before an appointment so I dropped into a movie, and it turned out to be Lana Turner. You can’t beat the—ah—the professional touch, Meg.”
“Don’t,” Margaret said, wincing.
Greg looked around the room, at the deep chairs, the flowers and books and magazines.
“I’m still muscle-bound from waxing these floors,” he said. “Do you think Steve was impressed?”
“I don’t think,” Margaret said whitely, “that anything about this house or anything about—about
us has ever had the slightest effect upon Steve. My — my heart ached for Jan.”
“You don’t think Jan,” Greg began. And Alarga ret said, “Yes, I do, Greg. You don’t think ...” She couldn’t bring herself to say marry, so she said, “You don’t think Steve and Famey will—will do anything foolish these next 10 days, do you?”
Pondering it, Greg said, “Of course, there are men that could take Famey—or leave her.”
MARGARET lay awake into the night, thinking.
Supposing she had asked Famey to dinner instead of Jan? Famey would have ducked it. An evening spent in the bosom of the family would be Famey’s idea of time wasted. Famey was her own beauty’s most worshipful idolator. She liked public places, crowds; because heads turned when Famey passed, and eyes, lingering, paid tribute. Alargaret thought, “And I’ve built against her from the time Steve was knee-high, but where did I get?”
Steve came down late next morning, his coat over his arm and his cap in his hand. He was meeting Famey for lunch, he said, so he’d combine breakfast with it. He called a taxi, and as he stood at the door, waiting, he said, “How was your party, Mom?”
Continued on page 32
Continued from page 9
“All right,” Margaret said brightly.
“What did you have to eat?” Steve asked. And Margaret said, “Roast beef and apple pie, Steve. Did you have a I good time?”
“It’s no joint for food,” Steve said, j “Good music, though, and they get the crowds.”
“Will you be home for dinner?” Margaret said hopefully. But Steve said, “No, there’s a tea dance in the Green Room at Famey’s hotel, and we’ll go on from there, I guess.”
The flowers faded, and Margaret replaced them doggedly. Her cache of ration coupons remained untapped. The car, with its tank full of the gas they’d hoarded for Steve, stood in the garage. One night when they were alone at dinner, Greg said, “Well, it’s his furlough, but there’s something funny about it. Why doesn’t he take the car, I wonder?”
“I’ve been wondering,” Margaret said, “if it’s a division of our spheres of influence. Mine would cover the house and car, and his would cocker the—the matter of his girl.”
Greg’s persistent humor failed him for the first time. He said worriedly, “But you wouldn’t hold that line, would you?”
“No,” Margaret said.
She was baking Greg’s favorite spice cookies late the next morning when she heard Steve’s step on the stairs and looked up to see him leaning against the kitchen doorway watching her.
“It’s funny the things you remember about home,” he said. “Why, you even remember the smells, Mom. The smell of cookies in the oven, and floorwax and flowers.”
There was a distinct nostalgic note ! in his voice, and Margaret’s throat tightened.
“Steve,” she said, “couldn’t you and
Famey think of something that would include Dad and me before—before you go? Something Famey would like, and the sky’s the limit.”
“Could, we have dinner at home, the four of us?” Steve said.
“It wouldn’t be very lively, would it?” Margaret said.
“She’d jump at it, Mom,” Steve said, so sure that he convinced her. “She’s lived in hotels a lot, poor kid, and her mother . . . well, her mother’s different.”
“Tonight then?” Margaret said. “And what could we have to eat?”
“Roast beef,” Steve said, “and apple pie. Look, Mom, are you going to use the car?”
“Not me!” Margaret said happily.
There was the butcher to phone and the florist. There were the rolls to set and the pie to make. The house had to be given a quick once-over and a, fresh fire laid; the table had to be set. By six o’clock there were blue circles of weariness under Margaret’s eyes as she stood back to look critically at the table, at the crystal and silver, the flowers and candles. Four places again. Through her mind flitted the thought, “Poor Jan!” Throttling it, she slipped into the turquoise blouse and long black skirt just as she heard the car in the drive, and she was at the door when Steve came in—alone.
Steve’s glance went to the dining room, and, whistling, he said, “Boy, what a layout! Tired, Mom?”
“Not a bit,” Margaret scoffed. “Is Famey ...”
“Famey isn’t coming,” Steve said. “Her idea was . . . something else.”
“Oh, no, Steve!” Margaret said. “I —I didn’t want that to happen. Don’t feel you have to stay, dear. Run along, why don’t you? I—it’s all right with me.”
Steve stood a minute, looking at her, and then he said, “You’re the best sport in the world, aren’t you? And this is a pretty swell joint, if you ask me. I guess I’ll just stick around.”
Dinner was ready and waiting when Greg came in. From the kitchen Margaret heard him say to Steve, “Hello! Miracles do happen, don’t they?” He stopped in the dining room, looked at the table, and came on to the kitchen.
“You didn’t lure them here and dispose of Famey, did you?” he asked Margaret.
“Shhh!” Margaret said, listening. Steve was at the telephone, and she heard him say, “Jan? Roast beef and apple pie over here, and I could get you in on it if you want to wash the dishes. Change your clothes? Be yourself! Overalls? We’ve seen you in worse, and soup’s on.”
JAN took him at his word. She burst through the door, laughing and breathless. She’d stopped only to douse her face and hands and run a comb through her hair. She wore an old scarlet sweater, with the sleeves shoved high, and a pair of her father’s garden overalls, hitched up to her shoulders and turned up at the bottoms.
“Holy smoke!” Steve whistled. “I’ve seen you in some getups, but this ...” “It covers an artist, my lad,” Jan said. “I was painting the porch furniture.”
She stopped dead in the dining-room archway, looking from Margaret to the table. She said, “Is—is it a party?” “Party?” Steve said. “Why, this is the way we live.”
Margaret’s heart beat high. Steve was more like himself than he’d been since that first wide grin at the station. He ate prodigiously, twitting Jan meanwhile with all his old ruthlessness.
“Remember the time you got mad at me,” he asked her, “and took Shorty
Ransom up on the Freshman dance? Too bad he got tonsilitis.”
Shorty had always been a port in a storm for the girls of their crowd, but, preening herself, Jan said, “Shorty sent me a hammered silver bracelet from Egypt.”
“Bury it,” Steve advised. “He sent every girl in town one.”
“Only four of us,” Jan said. “One chance in four is what I call good.”
“It’s a cinch you never went fishing with him,” Steve said, remembering the fishing trip on which Greg and Vic Layburn, Jan’s father, had taken him and Jan the summer the children were 16 and war was unthinkable. “Lord, just when I got my first bite of the day ...”
“Next time I try to help you ...” Jan said.
“By tipping the boat over,” Steve said.
“I came to the surface,” Greg remembered, laughing, “and looked around for Jan, and I saw her towing Vic by the hair.”
“Dad swore he’d learn to swim after that,” Jan said, “but he never did.” “Oh, well, he’ll always have you, won’t he?” Steve said. And Jan said, “Maybe not. There’s the bracelet.” Just then Margaret straightened in her chair and sat rigid. Outside there was the sound of a taxi chugging at the curb, and then they heard a light step across the porch, and the thump of the knocker.
“I’ll go,” Greg said, laying his napkin down. Listening, they heard him say, “Why, hello, Famey. This is nice.” And then Famey was standing in the dining-room archway with Greg. Her dress was a mist of white tulle, tight of basque and bouffant of skirt. In the auburn hair nestled a wreath of gardenias, no more fragrantly lustrous than Famey’s gleaming arms and shoulders. The palms of Margaret’s hands were suddenly moist, and she rubbed her handkerchief between them under the table. Steve got slowly up from his chair as Famey’s eyes went from him to Jan and back to him with a flutter of the long lashes.
“I’m a little late, Stevie,” she said engagingly, “but ...”
“But consider the effect,” Steve said. “You’re on the beam again, Famey, and no fooling!”
He settled her into her chair, the flounces gracefully distributed around her, while Margaret set another place. Then the spotlight concentrated and settled upon Famey, and Famey held it with practiced ease, amusing her audience with reminiscences of people she’d known here and there; all men, as it happened, but Famey in the candlelight made them completely credible. And she did very well, Margaret thought, with the susceptible major in Washington who had kept her in a state of siege until his wife came on from home with the children. Greg laughed outright at her account of the young second - lieutenant who had threatened to end it all unless Famey married him.
“And I didn’t sleep a wink for nights and nights,” Famey said. “I mean I really didn’t! But he went home on leave, and he came back with the dumpiest little bride ever, and with spite sticking out all over him!”
“Death, where is thy sting?” Greg laughed. And Steve said, “Better eat your pie, Famey. It’s a specialty of the house.”
“Darling, the calories!” Famey shuddered, but ever so prettily. “And I weigh 110 as I stand.”
She paused to accept a cigarette from Greg, a light from Steve. The hand with which she held it was slim and white. Her nails might have belonged to a Manchu princess. She
blew a smoke ring and was ready to resume when Steve turned to Jan. Jan was stolidly eating her pie with obvious relish.
“How much do you weigh, Jan?” Steve said.
“A hundred and ten,” Jan said.
“Hmmm!” Steve said, looking her over, his eyes sceptical. It was their usual coin, hut Margaret saw flames leap in Jan’s eyes.
“That’s what I weigh,” she smiled sweetly. “I mean I really do! It’s my clothes that make me look dumpy.”
Steve’s eyes narrowed, and a devil danced in their depths.
“Are you sure it’s your clothes?” he said. “You wouldn’t call your appetite poor, would you?”
“I just eat to live,” Jan sighed.
“And you must have plenty of chance to sleep, don’t you?” Steve still pondered it.
“All the chance in the world,” Jan conceded. “If I hear a shot I know it’s just target practice.” She finished her pie to the last crumb, and turning to Margaret, she said, “I hate to eat and run, but I—I’m expecting a phone call.”
“Relax!” Steve scoffed. “Shorty wouldn’t call one unless he called all.”
“You encourage me,” Jan said, brightening. She laid her cheek contritely against Margaret’s for a second, and Margaret felt its feverish heat. To Famey, Jan said, “You look like a dream walking, Famey.” She held out a stead y hand to Steve and said with finality. “Good-by, Steve. I won’t see 3'ou again.”
STEVE stood beside his chair, looking Jan over dubiously, but hesitating.
“Well — supposing the boat tips over?” he asked her.
“You’ve lived fully, haven’t you?” Jan shrugged. “And there’s the bracelet.”
The door closed behind her, and Margaret caught an anxious look in Steve’s eyes. For a minute she thought Steve was going to make a dash for it, but Famey said, “May I have a light, Stevie?”
“Let the dishes go, Mom,” Steve said, lighting Famey’s cigarette. “How are you on gin rummy, Famey?”
It wasn’t a brisk game at all. Famey chose the chair opposite the mirror over the fireplace. Between deals she took her compact from the white beaded bag, touched up her mouth, and looked in the mirror again. From the mirror her eyes travelled casually to the clock on the desk. She was no more restive than Steve, though. Steve watched the clock, too, as the hands travelled toward 10, the hour when dance orchestras would he tuning up. Wearily Margaret considered saying, “Run along and dance, you two, why don't you?” She couldn’t say it. It meant too much just to have Steve there across the card table from her for this one night.
But at 10 o’clock Famey yawned daintily, the slim fingers of both hands against the luscious mouth.
“Somebody’s got to take Famey home,” she said, her lower lip protruding in a pretty pout. “She’s sleepy.” Steve laid his cards down and got up with alacrity to bring Famey’s white quilted jacket.
“It’s been awfully nice, hasn’t it?” Famey smiled at Margaret. “Steve has talked so much about you.” She reserved the flutter of the long lashes for Greg as, standing with her arm linked in Steve’s, she said to Greg, “And I think my handsome beau looks like his father.”
“I always thought so,” Greg agreed gravely. “His mother can cook, though. Got a key, Steve?”
“I’m sleepy, too,” Steve yawned. “Oh, but take a key, Stevie,” Famey said quickly. “Who knows? We might come to life when we get out in the air.”
Clearing the dinner table, Margaret tasted tears. And helping her, Greg said irritably, “That was a nice one Steve pulled on Jan, wasn’t it?”
“He didn’t mean to,” Margaret said. “Famey didn’t want to come so Steve came without her. I think she thought he’d change his mind, but he didn’t, so she—she dropped by to pick him up.”
“He picks up easy,” Greg said. “It’s a romp for Famey.”
Margaret turned a steaming jet into the dishpan. Greg picked up a towel. Just then the kitchen door opened, and they turned to see Jan standing there. She slipped the string of Margaret’s apron loose, and from force of habit donned it over her overalls.
“You’re tired,” she said dully to Margaret. “I said I’d wash the dishes.”
“You’ll do no such thing, Jan,
“Yes, I want to do something for you to—to make up for tonight,” Jan said, and then she suddenly flared, “but he got me over here in this rig just to show me up, and it—it was a l-low-down t-trick.”
Margaret opened her mouth and stood there with it open, listening. There was the sound of a car in the drive. It couldn’t be Steve, of course. But she heard the garage door open and shut, and her eyes went to the kitchen door. It opened, and Steve stood there in the doorway. He shut
the door behind him, stood leaning against it as he looked at Jan.
“So here you are!” he said. “I’ve been ringing your doorbell.”
“Don’t ring it again,” Jan said evenly. “I just don’t feel that dumpy.’’ Steve tossed his cap to the table, peeled out of his coat, and rolled up his shirt sleeves. Taking the towel from Greg, he said to Jan, “You girls! And I just wanted to remind you of the dishes.”
“I’ll wash them,” Jan said, “and I’ll never speak to you again.”
Steve laid his towel on the sink. One hand on either of Jan’s shoulders, he held her off from him, looking at her. Jan was something to see in the ruffled apron over her overalls, and with fire in her eyes.
“Are you a sight!” Steve concluded. And then with that nostalgic note in his voice again, “But you’ll never know how good you look to me, Jan.”
“And for all I care,” Jan blazed at him, “you can—can end it all!”
Steve’s hands tightened on her shoulders. He said, “So I can end it all, can I? Say that again. I dare you.” “You let me go,” Jan stormed. “I— I hate you.”
“Say it again first,” Steve prompted her. “Come on, say it.”
Their eyes met and held. There was something electric in the air, crackling and vibrant. Jan’s eyes dropped, and her face crumpled.
“No,” she said as Steve’s arms went around her. “I won’t s-say it. I—I c-can’t.”
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