The crisscross-patterned lace curtains, which should have been silk organdy but were rayon instead, billowed in the soft May breeze. The chitterings of birds and new green scents drifted into Billie Ames’s room. She drew in her breath, savoring the tantalizing fragrances. Spring was her favorite time of year and this year it had seemed such a long time coming. In thirty-seven days she would graduate from high school. Adulthood. Grown-up. She bent to tie her saddle shoes, brushing impatiently at her ash-blond hair, which fell over her eyes, and frowned. Multistriped shoelaces and white anklets? Some grown-up! She should be wearing nylon stockings and heels, not these remnants of girlhood. But the war had been on in Europe for some time now and since the attack on Pearl Harbor last December, Billie had wondered if sheer stockings would go the way of the passenger pigeon: extinct. Not that it mattered, because they were beyond the limits of her clothing allowance anyway. Lots of women wore leg makeup and drew seams on the backs of their legs. But only pagans and Philistines did such things, declared Billie’s mother. And Agnes Ames rarely, if ever, admitted she was wrong. Billie’s thoughts circled back to graduation. When she flipped the tassel of her mortarboard from one side to the other it would be the beginning of her last free summer and then off to Penn State. She’d already signed up for a major in English, because she had to pick something; but the truth was she hated the whole idea. What Billie wanted, really wanted, was to go to a good design and textile school. Agnes said that wouldn’t be seemly. The best schools were in New York City and young girls just didn’t live there alone. Not nice girls, at any rate. Later, after Billie had her degree, she could fool with such notions.
But Billie suspected the real reason was that the cost of design school was prohibitive. She wished she knew more about the family finances. Were they comfortable or merely keeping their heads above water? Agnes said that was hardly the concern of a young girl. Study, socialize with “acceptable youngsters,” and dress well. That was Agnes’s credo, and it always ended with: “Then you’ll marry a young man from an old mainline family and your future will be secured. And always remember that no man wants used merchandise. Virginity is your most prized possession. Guard it well!” It was hard not to giggle when Agnes began preaching.
Sighing, Billie buttoned the straps of her jumper, which she’d made herself. It was such a beautiful shade of lavender and it had huge pearl buttons on the shoulder straps and two smaller ones on the patch pockets. Instead of hemming the skirt, she’d fringed it. She was the only girl in school with a fringed skirt, so far. By next week there would be at least twenty others; she was certain of it. Billie Ames enjoyed being something of a style setter.
Virginity. Agnes put great store in preserving it. Temptation was something to be fought and conquered until one’s wedding night.
Billie sighed again, this time more deeply. Temptation wasn’t a problem for her. She had no steady boyfriend, didn’t want one, either. And the boys she knew were certainly not worth wasting her virginity on. They had pimply faces, sloppy clothes, and bicycles with chipped paint and chains that always slipped off when they rode double. There was nothing at all romantic about them! Besides, most of the boys had nothing except the war on their minds, hardly able to wait for graduation when they could enlist and prove what big men they were. Girls were only secondary to the German and Japanese armies.
Billie’s world was simply too narrow, she thought. She wished she had more opportunities to travel, see things, do things. Even her trips downtown had been severely limited by Agnes ever since the arrival of mili- tary personnel. She thought of all the young men in their uniforms and grinned wickedly at her reflection in the mirror. The navy uniforms were the best, especially now in the warmer weather when they’d switched to whites. The men looked so dashing and debonair, like Tyrone Power or Errol Flynn. Imagine walking into her senior prom on the arm of a tall dark navy man! That was another thing. She didn’t have a date for the prom. A dress . . . but no date. Agnes was beginning to worry, Billie could tell. But a senior prom was special, and you had to go with someone special. Several boys had asked her, but she’d declined. Even she, with all her romantic notions, didn’t really expect the white knight to come charging down Elm Street to swoop her off to the dance. . . . Yet surely something or someone better would come along. At the last minute, she could always snag Tim Kelly. Ungainly Tim, who would make chopped liver of her feet on the dance floor. Still, he was a basketball captain and would make a respectable escort. Another sigh. Being one of the prettiest girls in the graduating class, and one of the most popular, didn’t ensure romance.
A glance at the clock on her nightstand told Billie she’d have to hurry and she experienced a small skitter of excitement. She loved Saturday afternoons and the matinee at the Loews Theatre. It meant she could leave her sewing and piano lessons behind for a few hours. Saturday afternoon meant walking downtown with her two girlfriends and meeting the gang at the corner. No one paired off, exactly, but they did walk side by side down the tree-lined streets. They were friends, and after this summer they’d all go their different ways. Billie decided she wouldn’t miss them, not the way some of the kids said they would. She’d be going off to a new school, where she could pick and choose her own friends, new friends. Ones that wouldn’t have to pass Agnes’s muster. Friends that might or might not be “acceptable.”
Billie closed the lid of her tinkling music box, a Christmas gift from her father when she was four years old. She looked at it fondly for a moment. She would not take it with her when she left for college; nor would she take the photograph of her parents smiling on the last day of their honeymoon. For an instant she felt a twinge of disloyalty. Her father had died before she and Agnes moved into Grandmother’s house on Elm Street. One day he was there and the next he wasn’t. It wasn’t as though she missed having a father, not exactly, but in some ways she did think of herself as deprived. It made her different from the other girls, whose fathers sat on Sunday afternoons reading the newspaper and took them out for a driving lesson in the family automobile. She wouldn’t want Agnes to know she’d left the music box or photograph behind. If worse came to worse, she could pack them at the bottom of a trunk in the attic and leave them there. Billie felt better immediately. She was a good child. A dutiful daughter. And she was still a virgin, which was more than some of the girls at school could say. Already there were whispers that Cissy had given her all to an army corporal.
Billie ran a brush through her thick blond hair, pinned it back with two heart-shaped barrettes, then closed the door on her pink-and-white bedroom. “Mother, I’m leaving now,” she called to Agnes from the foot of the stairs, then she waited.
Some people could walk into a room; others could make an entrance. Agnes Ames just appeared. One minute she wasn’t there and the next she was. It always amazed Billie.
She managed to keep her voice just a notch above conversational—Agnes said shouting was unladylike—as she went through the weekly litany for Agnes’s benefit. “We may stop for a cherry phosphate after the show. If we do, I’ll be home by five. If we decide to go for hamburgers, I’ll be home by five-thirty. The boys like to see the newsreel a second time. So it may be six at the very latest. I have my purse and enough change to pay for myself and enough for a phone call. I’m wearing my best underwear and I only put cologne on my wrists, not behind my ears. I polished my shoes and buffed the white part.”
Billie smiled at her mother and stood still for her silent inspection. Agnes’s dark brown gaze snapped and clicked as it monitored her daughter. From long experience Billie recognized the invisible signal that said she had passed standards. “What are you going to do this afternoon, Mother?”
“Today is Saturday. I have to clean the two front bedrooms. Our roomers are out, so this is the best time. Miss Carpenter is working overtime at the Navy Yard today. She certainly must make a princely wage.” This might be the time to think about raising the room rent a little, Agnes thought, maybe a dollar or so a week. Or perhaps she could offer break- fast and charge three dollars more. . . . God, how she hated this penny-pinching! “Miss Addison is away for the weekend. Did she pay you for hemming her skirt, Billie?”
“Yes, Mother. And there’s another for me to do this week.”
“Good. We don’t want to be taken advantage of, do we? I still haven’t resigned myself to opening my home to total strangers. Of course, what else could I do? I’m as patriotic as the next person and, considering the housing shortage in Philadelphia and having the space, I couldn’t very well not, could I?”
“They’re both nice ladies,” Billie said. “They’re quiet and they don’t mess up the bathroom.” She hoped Agnes wasn’t having second thoughts about taking in roomers, because now there always seemed to be a little extra money.
Agnes Ames was tall and thin, stylishly so. Her expertise with the needle proved that clothing need not be padded or flounced to make a garment appear custom tailored. Today she wore a beige-and-brown street dress with a wide chocolate sash. Adorning her long aristocratic neck were her grandmother’s pearls. Severe was a word that came to mind when one thought of Agnes Ames. Just as the pearls were always around her neck, so there was the calculating expression in her eyes. She had good clear skin, thanks to Pond’s Cold Cream and Dream Puff Powder. They were the only cosmetics she allowed to touch her face, aside from lipstick. Agnes never wore rouge: that was for wantons and streetwalkers. She preferred to pinch her cheeks. She did her own hair, out of necessity and frugality, and had become expert at using Nestle’s thick green wave set and the metal clamps that guaranteed a tight crimp. Small, imitation pearl clip-on earrings completed the outward appearance of Agnes Ames.
She poked her long thin arms through the holes of a pinafore-style apron, which she wore to save her dress. “Yes, they are quiet and neat, aren’t they? However, that was not happenstance, Billie—I was quite careful in choosing them and it always pays to have a clear-cut understanding from the beginning.” Switching to Billie’s plans for the afternoon, Agnes asked, “Are all of you going to the matinee?”
Billie took her cue. “Carl, Joey, Chester, and Tim. Bernice, Barbara, Dotty, and myself. That’s all.”
Agnes rolled the names over on her tongue. Hardly old Philadelphia mainline society, but they were acceptable. No old money there, but a lot of new money, most of it profits of war. New money could be offensive, almost threatening, because it had to be earned. Old money was comforting, a state of being.
“Enjoy the movie, Billie. I’ll hold dinner. Something light. Perhaps some of that new lettuce from our Victory garden. There are still four eggs left on our rations.” Agnes’s lip curled when she mentioned the Victory garden and food rationing. Billie suspected that the careful tending of the garden out back was less an effort of patriotism than an outward sign of Agnes’s driven desire to be like everyone else, only better.
“It sounds fine, Mother. Don’t work too hard. Perhaps I should stay home and give you a hand.”
“Nonsense. You go out with your friends. I’ll be done in no time. If it weren’t for this ridiculous war, decent people would still have cleaning help. It seems anyone who’s able to give a full day’s work has gone on to greener pastures at the Navy Yard or in factories. Help is so difficult to find.”
After Billie had left, Agnes looked about the small living room. It was neat, tidy and gleaming. Agnes liked soap and water. With her daughter out of the house this might be a good time to move Billie’s things downstairs to the study. There was no sense letting an extra room go to waste, and they certainly could use the money it would bring. By Tuesday the room could be rented. She should have done it long before this. It never occurred to her that Billie might object. Billie never objected. She was such a good child. The study had a window seat where Billie could sit and read for hours. No one could ever point a finger at Agnes and say she wasn’t doing her duty for the war effort. It wasn’t her fault she didn’t have a son to give for her country. Renting out her spare rooms and having a Victory garden were her contributions.
Agnes wrapped a bandanna around her head to protect her wave and went about getting her cleaning products in order. Oxydol, Old Dutch Cleanser, and a supply of rags. A feather duster under one arm, the mop in the other, she climbed the stairs. It was such an awful way to spend a Saturday afternoon. She should be taking a leisurely tea at someone’s house and talking about what was on everyone’s minds, the war. She’d love to be a hostess at a formal tea and serve thin cucumber sandwiches. Instead, she was cleaning rented bedrooms and a community bathroom. She didn’t want this kind of life for Billie; she didn’t want it for herself, either.
Billie walked alongside Tim Kelly. There was something different about the sandy-haired Tim today. His tall thin body looked ready to explode. Whatever it was, the other boys were in on it, too.
“If you walk any faster, you’ll meet yourself coming,” Billie teased.
“You always say that, Billie.” Tim laughed. “You just take short little steps. How come you aren’t wearing your penny loafers?”
“Because I polished these and I wanted to show them off.”
Tim laughed again. “I like girls who wear silk stockings and high heels,” he teased.
“You can’t get silk stockings anymore because they need every bit of it to make parachutes,” Billie countered. “The best you can get is nylon, but they cost a fortune.”
“Cissy always seems to have enough money for them, and don’t they look great on her!” Tim started smacking one fist into the palm of the other. He didn’t seem to notice that at the mention of the notorious Cissy he had gained everyone’s attention. “You aren’t going to believe what I did yesterday. You just won’t believe it!”
The girls stopped in their tracks while the boys laughed. “If it’s something dirty, Tim Kelly, we don’t want to hear it,” one girl said excitedly.
“Yes we do.” Another giggled.
“No we don’t!” Billie said firmly.
“Well, you’re gonna hear it anyway. I signed up. I went and did it. I didn’t even tell my parents yet,” Tim said proudly.
“Oh, no,” Billie whispered. Suddenly she wished they could all be little kids again, roller-skating down Elm Street, setting up lemonade stands. Tim was the first of their bunch to enlist and it seemed an omen of things to come, judging by the awe on the other boys’ faces.
“I leave a couple of weeks after graduation. I’ll be eighteen by then,” Tim said quietly. “I want to get into it. We all do, don’t we, fellas? It’s just a matter of time now. We’ll write you girls, and you’ve got to promise to write back. We’ve decided we want to pay back the Japs for what they did to Pearl Harbor.”
“What about college?” Billie asked inanely, still stunned by the news, yet feeling very grown-up now and already mourning carefree childhood.
“Is that all you have to say? Jesus H. Christ! I’m talking about war! About serving my country! I’m going off to fight for the American way of life and for girls like you, Billie! If those Japs can do what they did to Pearl, they could just march across this country and kill us in our beds. Everybody knows how sneaky they are!”