Read The Winter of Her Discontent Online

Authors: Kathryn Miller Haines

The Winter of Her Discontent

The Winter of Her Discontent
Kathryn Miller Haines

For Rebecca Margot and Christopher Claude.

Do great things. Be good people.

And for Garrett, who continues to read despite
the absence of dragons and trolls.

March 1943

Al brought meat.

“What the deuce is this?” I asked him. He was standing on the front steps of the George Bernard Shaw House, cradling two T-bones wrapped in blood-stained butcher paper as if they were puppies he'd just helped to whelp.

“I heard you've been low,” he said. “I thought you could use a pick-me-up.”

“And you thought meat would do the job?”

“Not meat, Rosie—steak, see?” He tossed me the package as if a closer acquaintance with the gory mass might up my enthusiasm.

I held the package at a safe distance from my coat. Blood leaked through the paper, creating a map of lands that didn't exist. “While I appreciate the gesture, I've got enough trouble in my life without bringing black market beef into the picture.”

“It's on the up-and-up.”

Al was a friend of my former boss, a gumshoe named Jim McCain. He was also an enforcer for Tony B., who in turn was one of mob boss Vince Mangano's lieutenants. If any of them was involved in something, it was illegal, immoral, or at least a direct violation of the Office of Price Administration.

Since rationing had started, the black market was thriving as those of us who were tired of making do without paid a little bit extra for the things we missed.
The Times
was full of tales of how the mob
had taken to illegal trade like bobby-soxers to Bing Crosby, and if you sunk to their level and bought their goods you weren't just breaking the law, you were as good as joining the Nazi Party. In the past year, beef had become so rare that most of us had started to believe it was one of those things you talked about that never really existed. Like unicorns. And while I would've loved a big juicy steak all to myself, I was, in my heart, a good law-abiding gal.

Plus, my rooming house didn't have a public icebox.

“Besides, Al, what am I supposed to do with it? Cook it on my hot plate, or put it on the fire escape and pray the temperatures stay low and the cats stay away?”

He shrugged and raised his arms in surrender. The sun began setting into his head. Al was an enormous guy, with the height and bulk of your average skyscraper. “Toss 'em if you want,” he said. “It's out of my hands.”

I put my hand on his overgrown biceps. A mountain rippled beneath my touch. “Don't be that way. I like the gift, really I do, but for the record? I would've preferred stockings.”

He shrugged again, and his tiny eyes bounced from one place to another: the building, the sidewalk, a hack cruising past us with its lights turned down low. He was determined to look at everything but me. “How you been?” he asked.

“I've seen better days.”

He raised an eyebrow to invite me to go on, but I couldn't bring myself to say the words. It had happened: the war had finally hit home. No longer was it this sad distant thing like Carole Lombard's death that I read about and dismissed because it was too far away to really affect me. I hated the Nazis and the Japs. I hated news bulletins that interrupted our regular programs with tales of sunken ships, downed planes, and bombs ripping apart the London skyline. I hated how we had to sacrifice everything we'd once taken for granted, how we couldn't go an hour without being reminded that the things we wanted were being put to better use
over there
. But most of all, I hated that my boyfriend, Jack (okay,
boyfriend), was missing in action
and I wouldn't get a chance to tell him that I had never stopped loving him.

No, I couldn't find the words. And even if I could, I couldn't bear to speak them. “What's new in your world?” I asked.

“Everything's jake.” Al patted his soiled overcoat, searching for a deck of Luckies. His fingers, red from the cold, crawled across his coat like sand crabs hunting for their shells. “I hear it's going to snow.”

Maybe if I'd been thinking less about myself I would've realized something was wrong. As it was, I could barely register that there was a world outside of my own head.

“Imagine that,” I said, with all the sensitivity of the SS. “Snow in March.”

He dropped the ciggy and ground it with the toe of his shoe. The sole flapped loose, revealing Al's tattered brown sock. “Enjoy the meat.” His gift delivered and his sparse attempt at conversation complete, Al turned up the street and disappeared.

I pulled a copy of
out of my pocketbook and wrapped it around the steaks until a number of circled audition notices grew dark with blood. I lived at the George Bernard Shaw, a rooming house at West Tenth Street and Hudson in the Village for young women pursuing theatrical vocations. It had cheap rent, cheaper food, and enough drama to fill the hours when WNBC was off the air. I liked the place, but I liked complaining about it more. I found it comforting to kvetch about a situation I chose to remain in. It was one of the few constants in my life that I could depend on.

My meat and I entered the building and paused before the row of brass mailboxes. I said a silent prayer and fingered the small, filigreed door marked
as though by touching the box I could will the letter I wanted to magically appear. No such luck. I slammed the box closed and muttered a curse that was sure to get me what I wanted the following day.

In the lobby Norma Peate was at the piano mangling “For Me and My Gal.” Ella Bart sat on the floor, her long Rockette legs stretched
into a split while her torso contorted until she could read the script set in front of her. Both kept their eyes away from me as I crossed the room and climbed the stairs. On the landing, Minnie Moore and my longtime nemesis, Ruby Priest, paused their conversation. Their smiles couldn't have been more artificial if they were painted on plastic.

“Why the sourpuss, Rosie?” asked Ruby. It was a tone I wasn't used to from her—at once pitiful and sincere. Encountering Ruby without her usual venom was like seeing Abbott without Costello.

“I'm swell,” I told her. “Never been better.”

“Are you sure?” asked Minnie. She was a new girl and I didn't have a read on her yet. She seemed nice enough, but there's a lot to be said for the company you keep.

“Positive,” I told her. “But thanks for your concern.”

I rushed into my room as quickly as I could without looking like I was trying to escape. My roommate and best pal, Jayne Hamilton, was sitting on her bed varnishing her nails red while the radio accompanied her with “He Wears a Pair of Silver Wings.” Our cat, Churchill, lay beside her, alternately wrinkling his nose and sneezing to express his displeasure at the stink of nail polish.

“How'd it go?” she asked as I secured the door behind me.

“Miserable. I'm officially notorious.” The last show I'd been in had become fodder for the front page after the playwright was murdered. My one and only performance of the play occurred on the night the killer tried to commit murders number two and three, and the tale of his madness had spread almost as quickly as word about how much of a stinker the show was.

Normally, I was grateful for whatever publicity I got, but somehow people began to believe that my participation in their plays would spell not only a production's ruin but death to anyone associated with it.

Jayne wielded an emery board like a sword. “You did only one show! How does everyone know about it?”

“How do you think?” I was Ruby's understudy in that last, ill-fated
show, and while she should've been satisfied that I'd done a fine job ruining my career on my own, I strongly suspected she was using every opportunity she could to remind people about what had happened and who had been involved.

“She wouldn't do that.” Jayne's conviction was as pronounced as a pantomime's lisp. “You practically saved her life.”

“By taking
part.” I set the meat on the dresser and shrugged out of my coat. “She's not a rational person, Jayne. I did a good job and she knows it. If it hadn't been for the murder, I may well be doing a lot better than her right now. She can't take that chance.”

Jayne plucked a cat hair from a wet nail. “She'll get tired of tormenting you eventually.”

“Sure she will, but by then I'll be old, fat, and completely uncastable.”

“Do you want me talk to her?” asked Jayne.

I turned down the Magnavox and slumped onto my bed. I'd deal with Ruby in my own way. There was no joy in letting others do your dirty work. “No, I want you to change the subject.” I lay back on the bed and fluttered my arms like I was making snow angels in my quilt. Jayne kept her mouth closed, either unwilling to let the matter rest or incapable of coming up with a new topic. “What's with everyone around here? Nobody in the lobby would meet my eyes, and Ruby and Minnie acted like I'd just gotten a starred telegram.”

Jayne resumed painting, her face moving closer to her hand in her attempt to block out my presence.

I smacked her bed. “You said something, didn't you?” No response. “You did!”

“They were worried.”

“About what?”

Jayne met my eyes. “About you.”

I kicked off my shoes and pulled a stack of pulps out from under my bed. The cover for the latest issue of
Astonishing Stories
had aliens flying homeward with beautiful, unconscious women in their arms. As strange as it may sound, I wished I were one of them. It seemed
easier to be asleep and at the mercy of unknown creatures than to be sitting in my room living through this moment.

“Somehow I doubt that,” I said. “Anyway, they shouldn't be worried. I'm fine.”

“Rosie…” Jayne's voice slipped into a whine.

“I am.”

Churchill leaped from Jayne's bed and walked a figure eight in the space between us. Each of his slow, deliberate steps was punctuated by the overextension of a leg as elegant as Margot Fonteyn's. You had to admire his beauty and grace, even if he was the devil incarnate.

“I take it there was still no letter?” asked Jayne.


“The mails are slow.”

“A condition that is often made worse when no one writes you to begin with.” I'd found out Jack was missing courtesy of a letter from a sailor named Corporal Harrington. I'd written him back asking for more information, and the wait between V-mail was killing me. It was agonizing how little we could do. Jack was one soldier of millions lost in a war being fought in more countries than I could point to on a globe. No matter how bound and determined I was to find him, I couldn't overcome the size of the problem.

A few weeks before,
The Times
ran a cartoon of a man walking around a series of corners, each time expecting to find the end of the war. At every turn was a pasteboard sign announcing good news that had occurred in the previous months: Rommel's retreat, Russian Victory, Russian Advance. But despite these optimistic reports, around each bend he found yet another corner and another until at last he encountered this month's bad news: Rommel was on the offensive. The message was clear—the end was nowhere in sight. It would go on forever; at every turn came the possibility of another catastrophe.

Jayne clapped her hands. “Off, Churchill. Now!”

The cat stood atop my dresser, his face inches from
's headlines. I picked up a brown leather mule and threw it at him. He bounced
from the dresser to the radiator and watched with glee as the meat and my clutter of cosmetics tumbled to the floor.

Jayne slowly approached the bloody mass. “What is that?”

“Al also got word that I've been down. That, my dear, is a freshly butchered pick-me-up.”

“He brought you steaks? Who does that?”

“A man who doesn't know the first thing about women.” I pulled my valise out from under the bed, dumped the meat in it, and fastened the latches. “You think they'll keep outside?”

“It's worth a try.”

I dumped the suitcase out the window. It landed with a boom that echoed down the length of the fire escape and back up again. Night was rapidly descending, stars made visible by the blackout filling the sky in such a way that if you ignored the buildings, noise, and refuse you could almost pretend you were in the country.

“Maybe you should call Jack's family,” said Jayne.

“I'm sure they got their own letter from Corporal Harrington.” I plopped back on my belly and tried to concentrate on the pulp.

“Yeah, but maybe they heard something else, you know, officially.” What she meant was maybe they'd gotten a starred telegram announcing Jack's fate, knowledge M. Harrington hadn't known yet or hadn't been willing to share.

“I'll give Corporal Harrington another week,” I said. “Then I'll send out the cavalry.”

“I could call them for you.”

I rolled to my side and read in her face her desire to help me move forward. It wasn't simply a matter of learning what had happened to Jack. Right now I was in a state of blissful ignorance, able to convince myself that he was safe. And I needed that, because the day I found out he was missing, I also found out that he still cared about me. See, Jack hadn't written word one to me since he'd shipped out, and I'd just assumed I was never going to hear from him again. The letter from Corporal Harrington didn't just tell me that something might have happened to Jack. It made it clear that I was the person
he wanted contacted if something did come to pass. As bizarre as it might sound, I was holding on to that fact as tightly as a life jacket. He still loved me and nobody—not anybody—was going to dilute that wonderful feeling by telling me he was dead or wounded so badly he wished it were so.

“I want to wait,” I told Jayne. “If someone contacted me when he was missing, they'll contact me if there's any other news.”

She turned her head away as though the wistful sound in my voice was too much to bear. I'm sure she would've argued with me further if Ruby hadn't knocked on our door just then and announced that Al had been arrested for murder.

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