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On the morning of her arrest, Edna Heustis awoke early and put her room in order. She occupied the smallest of Mrs. Turnbull’s furnished rooms, nothing more than an alcove under the eaves, with just enough space for a bed and a wash-stand. A row of iron hooks on the wall held the entirety of her wardrobe: two work uniforms, a Sunday dress, and a winter coat. The only decoration was a picture of a sailboat, furnished by Mrs. Turnbull, and for reading material her landlady had issued her a history of the Italian lakes, a guide to Egyptian art, and a general’s wife’s account of Army life on the western plains. Those sat on a hang-shelf, alongside an oil lamp — although Edna preferred to do her reading in the parlor, under the single electrical light offered for that purpose.
Absent from her possessions were any portraits of her family or mementos of home. She’d left in such a hurry that she hadn’t thought to bring any. She’d been inquiring at factories for weeks, and when the women’s superintendent at the DuPont powder works in Pompton Lakes agreed to hire her on, she dashed home, gathered up only that which she could carry, then slipped out the back door while her mother was occupied in the kitchen.
Edna might have been a quiet and serious girl, but she’d been raised among boys and had a fine sense of adventure about her. The war in Europe had reached its boiling point, and every American boy was eager to join the fight. If there was work to be done for the war, and women were allowed to do it, Edna was impatient to begin. She left the briefest of notes on the day she left: “Gone to work for France in Pompton Lakes. I have a place in a good house and you needn’t worry.”
It was true about the good house. Mrs. Turnbull only rented to girls from the powder works and maintained a strict policy about curfews and church attendance on Sundays. She was in many ways a tougher task-master than Edna’s mother had been, but Edna didn’t mind about that. She believed the regimen of living in a boarding-house to be similar to that of the Army, and liked to imagine that the daily making up of her room (tucking in the sheets, folding down the coverlet, stowing her bed-slippers and nightgown, arranging her brush and comb in an even row alongside the basin) might resemble, in some way, the orderliness of military camp life, of which her brothers were so eager to partake.
But France seemed very far away that morning as Edna stepped into her work dress, washed her face in the basin, and ran down the stairs for breakfast. In the cramped butler’s pantry that served as a dining room, Mrs. Turnbull had put out porridge and stewed apples. Edna sat, as she did every morning, in comfortable silence among the five other girls who roomed there: Delia, Winifred, Irma, Fannie, and Pearl. Their conversation ran along familiar lines:
First Delia said, “There’s a ladder in my stocking so far beyond mending that I might as well go bare.”
Then Fannie said, “Albert’s good for another pair.”
To which Irma replied, “Then it’s a shame she threw off Albert and went with those men from the Navy, who don’t need to supply a girl with stockings before she’ll go to a dance hall with them.”
Then Pearl said, “Delia, you didn’t go with all of them, did you?”
And Delia retorted, “You couldn’t expect me to choose one!”
This kind of talk had embarrassed Edna terribly the first time she heard it. Before she left home, she’d allowed a friend of her brothers’ to pay a little attention to her, but she could never imagine stolid and steadfast Dewey Barnes buying her a pair of stockings or taking her to a crowded and noisy dance hall and then letting her stumble home, as the girls at the boarding-house did, dazed by liquor and cigarettes, with a sort of swollen and bruised look about the lips that they wore like a badge until it faded.
It wasn’t that Edna disapproved of their feminine vanity, or their wild ways. She just couldn’t do what they did. She didn’t know how to make herself up and put herself on display. Dancing was a foreign language to her: she felt foolish trying to work out the Kangaroo Hop or the Peabody, and never could master Delia’s trick of kicking her heel back when she turned to make her skirt fly up. She practiced with them because they insisted, but more often than not she took the man’s part, maneuvering woodenly while the other girls practiced their flourishes.
Only once did she allow herself to be dragged along to a dance hall with them, and there she found herself entirely outmatched. Over the whirl of laughter and music, the other girls chatted gaily with any man who came into their orbit. They had a knack for making the sort of easy, meaningless chatter that would lead to a turn on the dance floor, then a sip from a bottle secreted away in a man’s pocket, a taste of his cigarette, and a kiss just outside the door, sheltered under a dark and discreet night sky.
But Edna hadn’t any idea where to begin, and wasn’t sure she wanted to. Every dance step, every smile, every laughing word exchanged with a man was like a piece of machinery that she didn’t know how to operate. Instead she held her friends’ purses, and went home at midnight with all of their keys, rattling them in every doorknob so that Mrs. Turnbull might hear the sound of all six girls returning home at once.
The others didn’t mind that Edna stayed home from the dances after that, and for her part, she’d grown accustomed to their ways. She was sitting placidly among them that morning, listening with some amusement but relieved, as always, that they didn’t expect her to join in.
“You remember Frank, don’t you? From the train station?” Delia whispered.
Pearl leaned in and said, “The one with the walking stick filled with whiskey?”
“Yes,” Delia said gleefully. “That one. He asked me to Atlantic City for the weekend. How am I going to get away? I’m all out of sisters with birthdays.”
“What about an elderly aunt in a state of decline?” Fannie offered.
“What about inviting me?” Irma complained.
“Oh, Frank would like that, but he’s to register us as man and wife, and who would you be?”
“I’ll be the sister with the birthday! Or the elderly aunt. Just take me along.”
They were all laughing at that when heavy footsteps stormed the porch and someone pounded the brass knocker hard enough to rattle their saucers. Every girl leapt up at once, flushed and guilty, as if they had, improbably, been overheard and caught. Mrs. Turnbull, having just come up from her lodgings in the basement, bustled past and admonished them to finish quickly and wash their own bowls.
But not a single girl moved, and not a single spoon clanked against a dish, as the door swung open and a policeman’s brusque voice demanded to see a Miss Edna Heustis, who was to be put under arrest on a charge of waywardness and taken without delay to the Hackensack jail.