Fiction

THE SACRIFICE

Joe and Ann worked at being understanding. So hard that it took all their love to untie the knots they made in their lives

ROBERT ZACKS July 15 1948
Fiction

THE SACRIFICE

Joe and Ann worked at being understanding. So hard that it took all their love to untie the knots they made in their lives

ROBERT ZACKS July 15 1948

THE SACRIFICE

Joe and Ann worked at being understanding. So hard that it took all their love to untie the knots they made in their lives

Fiction

ROBERT ZACKS

WITHOUT a word, Ann handed a letter to Joe over the supper table. Joe took it. "What's this?" he asked, swallowing a

mouthful of mashed potatoes. He ran his eyes over it rapidly and gulped. “Holy smoke, baby, this is marvelous.” He looked at her with delighted eyes.

Ann sat rigid with pride, her face flushed. She was silent, savoring the pleasure of conquest. Joe was looking at her with a great respect in his glance. And a touch of uneasiness. The flame in Ann’s eyes was tinged with the invisible light blue of desperation. Joe knew it was there.

“I’ll need a new dress,” she said dreamily.

Joe nodded quickly. “I should say so,” he said. “You’re going to meet all the stars. We gotta keep up our end.”

“There might be producers there,” said Ann, going red and then pale. She looked defiantly at Joe. “You never can tell.”

Joe looked at her soberly. There was no question in the world that Ann was gorgeous. He had that uneasy pleasure that comes with having one’s wife

boldly stared at by passing men in public places. Joe often marveled, as he looked at her, how he had come to win her. Perhaps, if it hadn’t been for the war and his being in uniform when they met . . .

“What kind of letter did you write?” he asked.

“Oh,” said Ann, looking confused. “I . . . well I . . .”

Joe stared at her. Ann quickly got up, went around the table and sat in Joe’s lap and kissed him.

“Joe, I’m so excited I can’t think. My head’s in a whirl. I can’t seem to remember, can you imagine!”

Joe laughed. The excitement was growing in him, too. The thought of Ann on the program known as “Luncheon at Mardi’s,” as a guest of the establishment thrilled him. He remembered the

program. The writer of the best letter telling why she wanted to have luncheon at. Mardi’« was invited as a guest and met all the celebrities who made Mardi's their hangout. The program was broadcast..

“I’ll need a new dress,” said Ann again. Joe grinned ruefully.

“It would be cheaper,” he said, “if I took you to lunch there myself.”

He was immediately sorry he’d said it.

ANN SAID tightly, “It’s not. the lunch, Joe. It’s an opportunity, don’t you see? I’ll be

broadcasting. I’ll be meeting the stars. Anything can happen. I might get a break.”

Joe lit a cigarette and leanded back, thinking. He remembered Ann in that amateur production given for the soldiers. She was better than good. She was terrific.

“You never can tell,” he admitted cautiously. “Breaks come in the funniest . . .”

“Joe,” Ann said, leaning forward tensely. “Joe, there’ll be producers t here. They always eat there. I read that actresses have been given parts just by being seen by producers. One producer saw a girl in a newsreel, imagine, just a newsreel and . . .” “Whoa, there,” said Joe gently. “Take it easy, kid. Don’t overdo this thing. You’ll be in for a great disappointment . . .”

“Is that so?” said Ann angrily, standing up. “I can act. You never saw me, but . .

“I saw you act,” said Joe quietly, staring at her. “And you were good. That’s how I first, met you. I heard you sing, too, and you were better on the stage with an audience watching than you are here in the apartment.” Ann said in a low

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tone, “That’s because you make me nervous. Because I love you. You know me better than anyone.”

Joe pulled Ann back on his lap.

“You’ll knock them dead,” he said.

Ann looked at him with such feeling showing on her face that Joe was startled. “Do you really think so?” she asked intensely.

Joe nodded, watching her keenly.

She hadn’t looked like this for a long time. Alive, full of a pure flame of joy. Joe thought about it through their usual evening of washing dishes, reading and listening to the radio. Ann walked in a dream, her face no longer a patient, waiting mask.

“Joe,” she wailed suddenly. “Joe, I’m twenty-two.”

Joe waited, smoking.

“It’s too old,” she said, with anguish in her eyes. “They start children in dramatic schools when they’re babies. They get parts when they’re seventeen. At my age . . .”

“If you’re good, it makes no difference,” said Joe, patiently, “If you’ve got the stuff . . .”

Ann flung away from him impatiently. “You don’t know,” she said wearily. “First thing they ask, have you gone to dramatic school, have you had experience.”

Joe was silent. They had discussed dramatic school before. The price for one year at the cheapest one was six hundred dollars. They had that much. A reserve against the terrors of the j uncertain world. It had come hard, j Very hard. They had dropped the j subject.

“Look,” he said, a little impatiently. “What are we getting in an uproar about? Go on the program, enjoy it and see what happens.”

Ann stared at him and suddenly became shamefaced.

“Of course,” she said, surprised and I embarrassed. She flushed. “You’d I think I was going to have a screen test.”

She turned briskly and got out her I sewing kit and started to strengthen loose buttons on a dress. Joe watched her, noticed the patient masklike quality had partially returned. It was a very subtle thing.

Suddenly Joe felt a sharp unhappiness. He had thought that once they’d gotten set after the war with an j apartment and a steady job, it would be smooth and simple sailing. But the undercurrents were strong. Unpleasant.

“Let’s call everybody up,” said Joe j suddenly, eagerly, “Let’s tell them j about the program so they can listen j in.”

He was trying to recapture the previous moment, Joe realized, in amazement, unpleasantness, uncertainty and all. Vaguely he wondered why.

Ann was looking at him oddly. “You know what they think about my acting. They always smile tolerantly,” she said bitterly.

“Well, when they hear this, they’ll be impressed, won’t they?” cried Joe urgently. “When they hear you meeting the stars, discussing your career? Come on. We’ll put a different look on ; their faces.”

Ann jumped to her feet with him, j the old excitement flaring. Her eyes shone. “It is important isn’t it, Joe?” she said eagerly. “I mean . . .”

“Sure,” said Joe feelingly.

THE DAY Ann went to Mardi’s, Joe stayed home to listen to the broadcast.

He snapped the radio on and sat down before it. He had at least two

hours before “Luncheon at Mardi’s went on the air. First he had to listen to a number of soap operas and popular song programs.

He grew more and more impatient as he waited nervously. He was picturing all their friends and relatives waiting too, hanging over the radios, breathlessly.

“We now bring you ‘Luncheon at Mardi’s,’ ” said the announcer, suddenly. Joe awoke with a start. “Mardi’s, the favorite eating spot of the celebrities whose careers you follow. And we have with us as guest one whose letter we found most interesting. And she’s a lovely young lady, Miss Ann Mayo. Ann, we are glad to have you here today.”

“I’m very glad to be here,” said a voice. A sweet, soft voice. Joe felt a chill up and down his back. It was Ann’s voice. It was different. Joe gulped and hung over the radio.

“May I call you Ann?” said the interviewer dropping his voice to a shade of intimacy used in interviewing.

“Yes,” said Ann, close to laughing. In the background was the hum of diners, the clatter of dishes. It sounded brisk, businesslike.

“Thank you,” said the announcer, as if he were really happy. “And now, Ann, I see over at the next table a man looking at you. Do you know who that man is?”

Ann’s voice came, breathlessly, “Yes, it’s Vance Ronson.”

“That’s right!” said the announcer exultantly. “Vance Ronson, the musical comedy star. And he’s looking at you, Miss Mayo, and I’m going to introduce you to him. You’d like that wouldn’t you, Ann?”

“Yes, indeed,” said Ann. Then static obscured everything.

Joe wildly fiddled with the dials. He got it again.

“How are you doing, Mr. Ronson?” asked the announcer.

“Fine,” said Mr. Ronson in a deep voice.

“How’s the attendance keeping up at your new show, Mr. Ronson?” asked the announcer.

“Standing room only,” said Mr. Ronson, with deep satisfaction.

“In spite of the hot weather?” The announcer was delighted. “Fine. Glad to hear it.” Then reproachfully, “We haven’t been seeing you for some time. We’ve missed you, here.”

“Been spending the hot evenings reading new plays,” explained the deep voice of Mr. Ronson. “Got to look ahead, you know.”

“We do indeed,” laughed the announcer, merrily. “Don’t we Miss Mayo?”

“Yes, we do,” said Ann. “I . . .”

“And now to the next table. There’s Robert Cornell, the writer, with that new starlet Vivian O’Malley. Let’s go, Miss Mayo.”

At the next table there were introductions. Ann’s voice was completely lost in the gabble of voices.

“Miss Mayo is interested in acting, Miss O’Malley. Aren’t you, Miss Mayo?”

“Yes,” said Ann’s voice. “I . . .”

“Well,” said the announcer cheerfully. “Maybe Miss O’Malley can give you a few tips on getting started. How about it, Miss O’Malley, tell us about your career.”

With great pleasure Miss O’Malley told of her own start. In detail. The parts she’d had in summer stock. The long rounds of agencies and casting offices.

“It was very discouraging,” said Miss O’Malley, her voice quivering with the discouragement of it. “But . . .”

“Ah, it’s a hard grind all right,” groaned the announcer. “Everybody

wdhts to be an actor. Me, too, once and look where I am. Hah, hah.

Everybody laughed. * Mr. Cornell, said the announcer briskly. “I’ve read your new book, Death Works Overtime.’ I think it’s terrific.”

“Thanks,” said Mr. Cornell drily. “It’s selling pretty well. You know, I’d like to hear a little more about your acting ambitions, Miss Mayo.

“Well, that’s swell of you, Mr. Cornell,” chattered the announcer, feverishly. “Isn’t it, Miss Mayo? Tell you what, Mr. Cornell. I see a couple of important singers over there. Suppose 1 leave Nliss Ann Mayo with you for a few moments to discuss things. And Miss O’Malley can give you a few tips. Okay? Fine.”

The announcer talked to a group of opera singers for five minutes while Joe paced back and forth angrily, waiting for Ann to get back.

In the remaining twenty minutes of the program, Ann was heard twice, by Joe’s straining ears. Once she said, “Yes, I do,” very clearly and beautifully. The second time she coughed and said, “Sorry.”

But she met celebrities. Artists, musicians, agents, composers. She sat by and listened as they told how good they were, of their town houses, of the new contracts they were discussing.

Then the announcer said, “Well, Miss Mayo, before we close the program I want to tell you what a pleasure it was having you with us. Your letter, as I remember it, stated that you longed to get away from the humdrum of a housewife’s life, that . . .”

Joe listened, paralyzed.

“ . . . you were trapped, that sometimes you felt you’d go mad, longing for the life you could have had and missed and that . . .”

“Please,” said Ann’s voice, filled with fright. “Please, I . . .”

“ . . . and that if you could have ‘Luncheon at Mardi’s,’ ” rushed on the announcer, racing against time, brushing aside Ann’s words, “ . . . you’d be happy at having come close to the world you’d long to live in. A fine letter, Miss Ann Mayo, a very sincere dramatic letter and we hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as we’ve enjoyed your being here. And you, too, radio listener, can be on this program as our guest. Just write a letter telling us . . .”

Joe turned the radio off. He stared unseeingly at the wall. Then he sat down, put his head in his hands.

After a time he reached down, pulled out the electric plug to which the radio was connected. Rapidly he took a thin copper wire, tied it at the back of the two prongs and connected the prongs. When he reinserted the plug, there was a hiss and a crackling sound. A big blue spark shot out of the socket.

Joe had deliberately short-circuited the wiring and blown the fuse. He tested the lamps and radio. None of the lights would work.

He opened the door, went downstairs and knocked on Mrs. Fogarty’s door.

When she opened it she cried excitedly, “I heard her. I was so excited. She sounded very nice.’»’

“Is it over?” asked Joe quietly. “My radio went dead in the middle of the program. I didn’t hear the rest of it. I think I’ve blown a fuse.”

“Ah, that’s a pity,” said Mrs. Fogarty. She nodded her grey head firmly. “It’s over. All over. I heard her. She was very good indeed. You should be proud, Mr. Mayo.”

I am,” said Joe mechanically. “Very proud.”

^ He went upstairs and closed his door.

I hen he sat down and waited, trying grimly to eliminate the deadness that possessed him, trying to act perfectly normal.

BY THE time he heard Ann coming up the stairs he was almost himself again. At least he had regained self-control. His mind was working smoothly, weighing the facts, examining them and surveying them coolly.

Downstairs Mrs. Fogarty flung her door open. “Mrs. Mayo,” she called. “Congratulations. I heard you. Too bad your husband’s radio went dead, he couldn’t hear you.”

Joe went to the door and stuck his head out. “Honey,” he yelled loudly. “I had a short. I blew a fuse. Can you beat it?”

Ann looked up at him, a tremulous question in her eyes.

“Did you hear the end?” she asked. “How far . . .”

“Right in the middle of the business with the author. That Cornell guy. He started talking about you and . . .” As Ann came to the door Joe put his arms around her and kissed her firmly. “Baby,” he said. “You were terrific. What I heard of it.”

Ann came inside, closed the door and leaned against it. Joe’s heart contracted as he saw her face. It was white and tired with strain. She looked straight at him searchingly, steadily.

“What’s the matter, honey?” Joe asked.

For a long, long moment Joe’s eyes met Ann’s. Let the love show, prayed Joe silently, in a bright light that will hide the shadow of the hurt.

Then Ann rigidly walked to the radio and tried it. It didn’t work. Joe watched silently, putting a puzzled look on his face as she tested the lights.

Dully Ann said, “We won’t have any light.”

'Then she sat down suddenly, dropped her purse on the floor, put her face in her hands and wept in small heartbreaking whimpers.

Instantly Joe was beside her, sweeping her into his arms, kissing her wet face. “Darling,” he said fiercely, “What’s the matter? What happened? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she sobbed. “Nothing. Except that it was ridiculous. It was absurd, the whole thing. All 1 did was say, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and ‘thank you,’ like a stupid little girl admiring the great ones.”

“Of course,” said Joe grimly. “Did you expect to have the stars hanging on your words? That’s what the program is like, for people who are fans and live vicariously.”

“1 shouldn’t have gone,” sobbed Ann.

Joe held her close and knew what she was thinking. It had been bearable before, the housecleaning, the dullness of the waiting until he came home tired and then the further waiting until he rested. Now it would be unbearable. She had come too close to the rare life that only one in a million can live.

“No,” said Joe sharply. “You did right in going. It was absurd to you but not to everybody wly> listened. They’ll look at you with respect. You broadcast. You met the big shots. Now when they hear you’re going to dramatic school they won’t smirk or nag . . .”

Ann sat up startled. “Dramatic school?” Her tear-stained face turned and watched him intently.

Joe swallowed hard. “Sure, dramatic school,” he said triumphantly. “You’ve always wanted to go, haven’t you?”

“We can’t afford it,” she said, a distant, small fearful hope beginning to shine and grow with great rapidity. “We’ve saved it for emergencies. We could use it for vacations or clothing or . . .”

“Baby,” said Joe with authority. “This is all of those things. This would be better for you than a vacation.

Pve been watching you lately. To be perfectly frank, you haven’t been looking so good. You’ve been bored, got no interest in life and I enjoy life better when my wife looks alive and full of pep.”

There were tears in Ann’s eyes. “No,” she said, shaking her head. “It isn’t fair to you. The way you’ve saved . . .”

“Listen,” snorted Joe. “Even if you spent it on a fur coat, would that be better? The fur coat wears out, doesn’t it? And if dramatic school pays off it’ll be an investment . . .”

“Joe,” said Ann, frightenedly. “Thousands of girls go to dramatic school and never get a single part. Thousands. If I didn’t succeed we’d always feel that I wasted . . .”

“We’d feel that you had six hundred dollars worth of fun in dramatic school. We’d feel,” said Joe roughly, “that you tried, that you had your chance.”

“There’s only one chance in a million. I just couldn't waste all that money. If I failed . . .”

Joe got up impatiently. He yelled at her. “Do I stay home because I couldn’t become president of my firm? ” He towered over her angrily. He wasn’t entirely acting. This new road had some risky turns and he was frightened. He could gladly go on living the calm, peaceful life he had dreamed of during the war. But Ann

would slowly sour as the lines of age deepened with the passing years, as she bitterly built fantasies of what could have been.

“No,” said Ann decisively. “You worked too hard for that money.”

Joe felt the poison of the sacrifice the way he would never have felt it if he hadn’t heaxd what she’d written in the letter. It was a poison that brewed secretly and ate at the vitals unseen.

It puzzled him. Here he was making the gesture, he was giving her what she wanted, yet she preferred to . . .

“So,” he said, as a great light burst over him. “You don’t want to go. You prefer the role of the noble sacrifice. You don’t have to face failure ever and you can put the whole blame on me. You can always say, I did it for him.” Ann stared up at him, shrinking. He glared at her, then suddenly he began to laugh. “Well—” he snorted. “That’s exactly what you’re doing.”

Ann, bewildered, put her hands to her face.

“Is that what I’m doing?” she said, a slow flush creeping into her cheeks. There was a brightness in her eyes.

Joe pulled her to her feet and put his hands on her elbows.

“Ann,” he said gently. “You are going to dramatic school aren’t you?” She burst into tears.

“Yes,” she said, and clung to him tightly. ★