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Virginia Mitchell watched her husband carve the Sunday pot roast and wondered if he was having an affair. He showed more interest in the way the meat was cooked than he did in her. Harold traveled out of town often with his work, so he had plenty of opportunities to stray. He would leave tomorrow on another trip, in fact. He set down the carving knife and nodded his approval.
"Roast beef looks good, Virginia. Not dry or stringy."
She sighed with relief. "I was afraid it might be ruined. The sermon went a little long."
"The new pastor likes to beat a dead horse." Harold gave her his charming smile, revealing an endearing dimple in his left cheek.
Virginia never should have married a man as handsome and intelligent as Harold Mitchell. She worried constantly that he would find another woman who was more stimulating than she was, someone who made her seem dull and boring in comparison. Virginia always sifted through his pockets when he came home from a trip and searched every compartment of his suitcase for telltale signs that he'd been with another woman. She even sniffed his shirt collars and the lapels of his suits for traces of perfume. Once or twice she thought she'd detected an unfamiliar scent.
Worry consumed her the wayher family was consuming this Sunday meal: Harold piled thick slices of meat onto his plate; nine-year-old Allan shoveled forkfuls of mashed potatoes into his mouth; seven-year-old Herbert gulped down Jell-O as if racing against time. If only she knew for certain that Harold really was having an affair.
But then what would she do? Ginny had thought it through countless times as she'd searched his pockets. She couldn't leave him; how would she support herself and her sons on her own? She would have to find a job, and she wasn't qualified to be anything except a housewife.
She watched Harold pour gravy over his mashed potatoes and thought that maybe it was better if she didn't know for certain. This way she wouldn't be forced to decide whether to live with the knowledge in silence, forgive him, or leave him. She found it difficult enough to decide what to fix for dinner, let alone wrestle with questions of infidelity and trust. Ginny didn't kid herself-you could never trust a man once he became a philanderer.
She had chosen philanderer for her newest vocabulary word. It meant someone who made a habit of cheating on his spouse. For more than a year, Ginny had used a thesaurus and a dictionary to try to improve her vocabulary, hoping to converse more intelligently for Harold's sake and to feel less inferior for her own sake. She had purchased the two books during her one and only year in college, and they'd done nothing but collect dust ever since-except for the odd time she'd used them to press flowers. She had looked up playboy in the thesaurus, recalling that Harold had a reputation as one before they'd met. The word playboy had led to philanderer.
Was he one? Did she really want to know? She watched him stab a forkful of green beans, and her chest ached with love for him. If only he loved her half as much as she loved him.
Harold took charge of the dinner conversation, as usual, asking the boys about their schoolwork and Boy Scout projects. Ginny had nothing new to report about her week. She felt dumb, dull, vacuous-another vocabulary word. Her life was uninteresting and boring, day in and day out. If only she could do exciting, challenging things, be a woman of vision and purpose like Eleanor Roosevelt. Then Harold would have no reason to philander.
The candle flames blurred as her eyes filled with tears. Did anyone even notice the pains she took to make Sunday dinner special: lighting candles, using her good china and silverware, spreading the table with a white damask tablecloth and napkins? Sunday was the one day when her little family was home together all day, and she liked to make it special. They always attended church, dressed in their Sunday finest, the boys looking like little men in their jackets and ties. Ginny was in no hurry for Allan and Herbert to grow up. She wished they were still babies, or at least chubby toddlers in short pants. Harold chided her constantly for babying them too much.
Virginia watched the mashed potatoes and Jell-O vanish, the pot roast shrink to scraps of leftovers. All too soon, Harold and the boys had gobbled down the apple pie she'd baked, excused themselves from the table, and disappeared into the living room. Harold sighed as he slouched into his armchair with the Sunday Times. The boys sprawled on the floor with the family dog and the funny papers. Maybe Ginny should do more than skim the news. Maybe she should take an interest in the events over in Europe the way Harold did. Maybe other women would pose less of a temptation if she could discuss current events with him.
But current events would have to wait until she'd washed and dried the dishes. Virginia surveyed the abandoned table and wanted to cry. All that work: ironing the tablecloth and napkins, peeling the potatoes, cutting up the green beans, making sure the meat was seasoned just right and the gravy wasn't lumpy, rolling out the piecrust, peeling the apples, slicing them to a uniform thickness-an hour and a half of work in a steamy kitchen and the meal was over in twenty-two minutes. It would take her another hour to clean it all up. And it was such vacuous work. No wonder Harold was bored with her ... she was bored with herself. She wished she were bolder, smarter, more confident-like Eleanor Roosevelt.
Virginia was drying the last of the pots and pans when the telephone rang. "Ginny! Are you listening to the radio?" her next-door neighbor asked breathlessly.
"You'd better turn it on. We've been attacked."
"Attacked? What do you mean?" But Betty had already hung up. Ginny hurried into the living room, stepping over Harold's outstretched legs and Allan's strewn comic books as she made her way to the radio. The humpbacked Philco came to life with a hollow ploink.
"Who was on the phone?" Harold asked as the radio tubes warmed up.
"Betty Parker. She said we should turn on the radio. Something about an attack." Static squealed as Ginny adjusted the knob, finally tuning in to a channel. It took a moment for the announcer's words, reported in somber tones, to sink in.
"Thick smoke is still billowing from the United States' Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, where the U.S. Pacific Fleet is anchored, and from Hickham Field, where more than one hundred U.S. planes have reportedly been destroyed on the ground. There is still no word on how many ships were damaged. So far, at least two hundred servicemen are confirmed dead, but the death toll is expected to rise."
Harold lowered his newspaper and sat forward on the edge of his seat. Allan looked up from Little Orphan Annie, his eyes wide. "What happened, Dad?"
"Shh ... listen."
"Witnesses report that the emblem of the rising sun was visible on the wing tips of the attacking airplanes. There are unconfirmed reports that the Japanese used aircraft carriers to ferry the planes within striking distance. Once again, we repeat: This morning at approximately 7:55 a.m. local time, the nation of Japan launched a surprise attack on our American military bases in Hawaii, causing widespread devastation. President Roosevelt is reportedly meeting with high-level Washington officials and is expected to ask Congress to declare war."
War! The word sent a chill of fear through Ginny. What would happen to her children, her home? Would Harold have to go away and fight? At age thirty-five he was eligible for the draft. She gazed around at the room that had seemed so safe and secure a moment ago and felt as if the Japanese had attacked her house. The walls suddenly seemed flimsy and vulnerable, her children frail bundles of flesh and bones, a heartbeat from death.
"Harold! What are we going to do?"
"Now, Virginia, take it easy."
"But we've been attacked! What if the Japanese invade us?"
"You worry too much. It's my job to protect this family."
"But I feel so helpless! I want to do something!"
He gave her an indulgent look. "I could use a cup of coffee. Is there any left?"
Coffee? All she could do was make coffee? Virginia realized that he was serious, that he was dismissing her, and she stepped over the dog and the scattered newspaper pages to return to the kitchen. She could hear Harold and the boys talking about the Japanese Empire and the war in Europe as she set the pot of leftover coffee on the burner and lit the stove.
"Here, I'll show you on a map, Herbert," she heard Harold say above the sound of rustling newspaper pages.
The radio announcer continued to describe the devastation, her sons were asking worried questions, and all Ginny could do was stand in the kitchen waiting for the coffee to reheat. She knew that her life couldn't possibly continue the way it always had-everything had suddenly changed. Her country had been attacked, and her nation would be engulfed in another terrible world war. She felt helpless.
"I want to do something," she said aloud.
Virginia recalled her earlier fears that Harold was having an affair, and they suddenly seemed trivial in comparison.
Miss Helen Kimball lay in bed, listening to the distant toll of church bells, and for the first time in her life she saw no reason to attend Sunday services. As of this morning, she no longer believed in God. When the alarm clock had awakened her for church at the usual time, she had shut it off and remained resolutely in bed, gazing out of her bedroom window at the wintry tree branches. But now the aroma of coffee had begun to drift up to her room, and she found it irresistible. She climbed from beneath the sheets, put on her robe and slippers, and went downstairs to the cavernous kitchen.
Minnie, her parents' housekeeper, stood at the sink, humming as she peeled potatoes for the noon meal. A Sunday hat perched on her wooly gray hair, and she wore her best Sunday dress beneath her apron. Minnie turned when she heard Helen enter, and her dark eyes widened in surprise.
"Why, Miss Helen! I thought you'd off and gone to church already, and here you are in your nightclothes. You feeling sick?"
"No, I'm perfectly fine." She found a mug in the cupboard and poured herself a cup of coffee. Minnie set down her paring knife and dried her hands on her apron.
"Let me fix you some breakfast, then."
"No, you go ahead and finish what you're doing. I can make myself some toast."
Minnie's dark face wore a worried expression as she watched Helen pull a loaf of bread from the bread box and place two slices in the toaster. "Ain't you gonna be late for church, Miss Helen?"
"I'm not going."
"Not going? What else you be doing, then?"
"Well ... I'm not really sure what I'll do all morning. But I know I'm not going to spend it singing hymns and spouting creeds and yawning through a meaningless sermon. What's the point of going to church if I don't believe any of it?"
"Since when ain't you believing?"
"I don't know," Helen said with a shrug. "But I finally realized it this morning, so I decided it was better to stay home than to be a hypocrite."
"Now, you can't go losing your faith, Miss Helen. Don't you know the Bible says, 'What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?'"
"Yes, I do recall reading that verse," Helen said as she checked to see how the toast was progressing. "And it surely does apply to me. The doctors say that I'll inherit Father's estate in a few months-more money than I can possibly spend in my lifetime. Especially since I'll be fifty years old soon, and my life is certainly more than half over."
Her life might continue, but Helen knew that her soul was definitely lost. It had shriveled up inside her and died quite some time ago. As of this morning, she no longer cared.
When Minnie didn't respond, Helen looked up. Minnie's worried expression had transformed into speechless shock. "Don't mind me, Minnie," Helen said as she spread butter on her toast. "You'd better finish peeling those potatoes or you'll be late for church yourself."
"Now, how can I be thinking about church or potatoes when you're talking this way?"
"Better yet, leave the potatoes, and I'll finish them myself. It'll give me something useful to do." She carried her toast and coffee to the kitchen table and sat down.
"You already got plenty to do, taking care of your mama and daddy the way you been doing." Minnie moved the colander of potatoes from the sink to the table so she could face Helen while she continued peeling them. "You don't mean what you're saying, Miss Helen. You just wore out, that's all."
"No, actually, I'm not. Between you and the nurses, I don't have much to do at all. In fact, I'm more bored than tired. Last year at this time I was still teaching second grade, and Sunday was a welcome day of rest before another week of school. Now it's just another endless day like all the others as I try to keep from going crazy or roasting to death in this huge, overheated monstrosity of a house. Do you know that no matter how high I set the furnace or how many blankets I pile on mother's sickbed, she still complains that she's cold? The calendar says December, but it feels like August in here."
"You trying to change the subject on me, Miss Helen?"
"In fact, I may not get dressed at all today. Who's going to see me? It's the nurses' day off, and my parents never have any visitors. All their friends are either dead or too old to make sick calls."
"Why don't you invite some of your own friends over?"
Helen stood and carried her plate to the sink without replying. She didn't have any friends-but that was by choice.
"If you don't mind, Minnie, I think I'll listen to the radio in your sitting room. I need to hide in there until after noon in case Father feels well enough to putter around downstairs today. He'll want to know why I'm playing hooky from church, and I don't feel like explaining why I no longer believe in God."
"Miss Helen! I don't believe a word you say. You know perfectly well there's a God."
"Well, if there is, then my father is the spitting image of Him. They're both rich, both powerful, and they both like to order people around like pawns in a chess game. Neither one of them has ever shown much love, and any decisions they've ever made for me suited their own interests, not mine. Together, they've ruined my life."
Minnie gazed at Helen in disbelief. "Now you got me good and worried, Miss Helen. I been working here more than twenty years, and I ain't never heard you talk this way before."
"Even though Father knows he's dying, his heart hasn't softened in the least. I resigned from my teaching job and rented my home to tenants so I could move in here and take care of him and Mother, and he hasn't shown one ounce of gratitude. He orders me around like I'm one of the servants, and he argues with me over every little thing."
"He ain't feeling well, Miss Helen-"
"So he wants everyone else to feel just as miserable. He's unfailingly grouchy, demanding, and ungrateful. Every single day he reminds me that he's leaving his fortune to me. I got so fed up yesterday that I told him I planned to give away every last cent of it and live a simple life. I just might do it, too."
"Ain't so simple living a simple life," Minnie said. "Being poor is hard work. Being a poor colored person is even harder. I don't recommend you try it, Miss Helen."
"I almost did it once, you know, when I was younger. I nearly gave all of this up for love."
"And I'll bet you're glad that you didn't. Nothing good happens when you think with your heart instead of your head, let me tell you."
"Maybe you're right.... But it's too late now. I'll never know." And Helen would have to live with what might have been for the rest of her life.
Minnie chopped the potatoes into quarters and spread them in the roasting pan with the meat and carrots and onions. "This here will be done cooking at twelve-thirty," she said as she slid the pan into the oven. "But you and me ain't done having this conversation about believing in God, Miss Helen." She untied her apron and hung it on the kitchen door, then shoved her arms into her coat sleeves. "My granddaughter's gonna be here any minute to take me to church. And you better know I'll be praying for you today."
"Don't waste your prayers on me, Minnie. The doctors say that my parents haven't much time left. Pray for them instead."
"Gonna pray for all of you," she said. She closed the back door behind her.
Excerpted from A Woman's Place by Lynn Austin Copyright © 2006 by Lynn Austin. Excerpted by permission.
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