Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
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Four Corners
after the painting Intersection, by McKie Trotter III

Corner One
Beverly stands at something like attention, awaiting a ride in sunlit rain at a four-way stop. Already changed out of her grease monkey uniform—its mannish shape, its oily spots—a gesture meant as an olive branch, signaling marital hopes ahead with a nod to hopes past. Her dress comes from courtship days—too worn to break out any longer at restaurants, but still festive enough for a private dinner.

Wooden posts trussing up the traffic signal remind her of asparagus stalks she sautéed earlier. If he picks her up promptly, she can have their supper reheated and piping by nightfall. A vehicle idles at the intersection and, without turning her head, Beverly is certain it’s a DeSoto. Its driver, guessing she dropped off her faulty car at the service station, is sizing up whether to play Samaritan right away, or wait until he’s certain of this woman’s identity. Wrapped in a raincoat though, and helmeted by a black umbrella, Beverly remains incognito, so the DeSoto motors on.

She took her ordained spot at the crossing early. The service station floodlights and glowing signals reflect off slick asphalt in blurred swirling edges, as though a painter’s palette being mixed before her. Part of Beverly wants to let the wind fling open her raincoat, feel the elements full-on, let passing vehicles spray her dress. Would enough fat droplets bolster its faded colors? Facilitate printed flowers into growing real roots? Somehow it all, in this moment, strikes her as possible.

Corner Two
Sometime later, truck brakes startle Beverly, squealing in song, like lovelorn dogs whose owners departed without them. A figure rushes toward the truck and, with rain beginning to beat faster, Beverly can’t quite see what has happened: Near accident? Cargo spill? Neither; only a hitcher climbing aboard the cab. It touches Beverly how something simple as an extended thumb and shared route can unite strangers for miles and hours. She envies the hitcher drying off in the truck, sipping at the driver’s thermos, while raindrops runnel the gap between her stockings and shoes.

Her husband this morning made a show how Beverly better be waiting for him at this exact corner, at this exact time (he’d shipped overseas an enlisted man but returned barking orders like an officer). Now he’s running late. She can’t risk straying across the street to tend tonic water at the bar with Baptist teetotalers, or certainly not risk gabbing with Mitchell Conyers as he shutters his service station. Slipping into the phone booth one corner over, though, wouldn’t pose a problem. Dry off, pluck the nickel from her purse, dial home, and make sure the two hadn’t missed a connection, or somehow overlooked each other. It wasn’t only time that war had requisitioned from them but routine, matrimony’s muscle memory. As if while separated they suffered separate strokes and now needed to relearn everything together.

They could relearn, though. Same way Beverly used to do as a kid, with camp friends. At the outset of summer, absences and distance always felt hefty. But warm up with jokes, opine on altered haircuts, resurrect cherished memories, and she and her pals would be well on the way to molding new ones. Beverly and her husband had so many memories ahead of them to make. Ringing in 1947 tonight, for starters, its promise of a first full year of nuptials shared entirely in one space, one time zone. The war has been won; the reunion, completed, a new page turning in the calendar. What’s not to celebrate?

This nickel in her palm brings peace with each unanswered ring. “No ma’am, I’m thrilled you can’t connect my party,” Beverly insists to the switchboard operator, after she apologizes for not being able to place the call. “Means my party’s almost here to whisk me up.” A collusive chuckle between the women follows, and Beverly gets her nickel back, to boot.

His not answering is a relief to Beverly for another reason: they haven’t figured out how to speak kindly yet on telephones. Pretending bad connections were the culprit. His anxious, plaintive letters had pulled her through the distance, but now, Beverly can’t bring herself to open her shoebox full of stationery sent from wherever he was stationed. Rereading them either would confirm to Beverly she’d been too blinded by worry to grasp an astringent tone in the undercarriage of each page or confirm how out-of-joint their lush, charming promises aligned with the days now lived.

This morning began on an odd bright note: him laughing at his biscuit. Was something wrong? No, it was good. Fluffy. Moist. Then why the laughing? “I keep thinking of this character in my company. Man by the name of Morris. Guy never ate his breakfast biscuit ‘less it was moist. Forget moist. He’d dunk them like donuts in instant coffee, mash pieces into dry oatmeal before adding water and making the thing into this tasteless mash. One time, no lying, Morris gnawed the thing side-by-side with the Dentyne in his K ration.”

Grinning, Beverly told a tale in turn about one of her coworkers at the service station, wounded in action badly enough for an early discharge. He liked to swear his most grievous war injury had been taking on a taste for canned pork. Her husband only grunted, setting down his supposedly good biscuit with barely two bites missing. He hadn’t meant to be matched. “When’s your last day?” he’d asked.

“At the station? I didn’t think we needed to set one. Least not yet. This extra money we’re making is making a difference for us.”

“You aren’t working if you’re expecting. You won’t.”

Were they expecting her to be expecting? If so, they’d need to alter their nocturnal habits. He rolled his pale bitten biscuit on the plate. It reminded her of a cabriolet limping last week into the shop, front tire punctured and bled out of air. Her husband’s look at that moment a mirror of the ashen driver’s then, gazing at the mangled wheel rim. Considering a cost he hadn’t counted on.

“I mean it. Instant I get you pregnant, you wash your hands of that place.”

“Well, sure. Though we’d need to give fair notice.”

“Notice? We get a kid on the way, this is your workplace.” He buttered the biscuit, then set it aside. “Conyers can replace you with any stiff.”

(Beverly’s employer in fact said last week how much he’d come to count on her.)

“Burning bridges,” Beverly said, topping his coffee, “isn’t my nature.”

“Bridges. Job makes us a laughingstock.” His snort punctuated the point. “Wife working in a service bay after her husband returns from risking his life in the fight. Still working there, a full year after he’s come back to provide for her.”

(She didn’t work in a service bay. And he’d been back nine months, three days; not a full year.)

(She’d counted.)

“Surrounded by forty-weight oil and mufflers. Wearing some sloppy pit crew outfit. Strange man hovering over you.”

First off, Mitchell Conyers and his wife, late wife, had been family friends for years. Second, grace had done a slow leak from Mitchell Conyers’s body over the past decade and forty pounds; the man was incapable of hovering. Third, it wasn’t as if Beverly got under those cars. She handled the shop’s books, a job that had prevented their young household from going under while its provider patrolled the Southern Hemisphere, and also, kept Beverly from advancing into enemy interior territory as her husband slept and woke each day in harm’s way—kept her mind from sullenly dwelling over where he was stationed, who he was fighting, the gulf of time between letters received, how rarely she recognized the towns his letters flew from, how floundering and fragile the line between victory and expiration.

But if V-E and V-J Day had vanquished those enemy thoughts, then wasn’t her husband right? What was left to prevent the two from plunging into all the plans they laid out before he’d been drafted? Like leisure. Or getting away. Or settling down. All those other victories available at last for claiming.

Even from the phone booth’s dark shelter, Beverly can tell which vehicles whir by before fully seeing them: the horn from a Ford, the shape of last year’s Chevrolet wagon. She’s become fairly fluent in the language of machines, able to discern particular heartbeats purring under hoods. How many customers had she and Mitchell Conyers watched trudge to this very phone booth, delivering bad news about a surprising diagnosis he delivered? “Most customers think they can outwait what’s knocking under their hood,” he’d told Beverly one day, teaching her to fix a flat, since she’d have to continue nursing their fading ’37 Studebaker Dictator until peace in the world had been restored. “Only makes it worse when we finally open it up for a hard look.”

Corner Three
Diagonal from Beverly is another place she could feed that nickel knocking around her purse: the bar. Slip it into the thirsty Wurlitzer, letting it convert the coin into chords and choruses of her choosing.

She’d gone to the bar only once since her husband shipped out, one Friday evening with her coworkers, flush with adrenaline. For what occasion? Well past Japanese surrender. Well before their apprentice mechanic’s graduation. Could it be they’d come celebrating nothing but camaraderie?

After polishing off a first round, Mitchell had pledged, with booming geniality, to splurge for the second round for all who cared to stay. To keep the gaiety going, Beverly went to the Wurlitzer. A new model, rolled out from the factory following the Allied victory, and end to rationing, far sleeker than its predecessor, as if itself letting loose. The jukebox’s shapely form and overwhelming selections dizzied Beverly. Its glowing tubes helped her scour for change. She couldn’t have loitered beside the machine’s red and yellow buttons, or lit green square broadcasting the current record playing, for more than a moment, though when she returned, only Mitchell Conyers remained, welcoming her back with a tight shrug at what was now a too-wide table.

“Couldn’t corral the others. We’re the only ones who took me up on my offer.”

We’re the only ones, she thought, without dinners and families awaiting us.

Their second drinks came with solemn chasers: stares from other patrons. Librarian Lolly classifying the composition and strength of Beverly’s cocktail. The two bankers who’d advanced her and her husband’s house loan and handled her war bonds. Stares that would only amplify once the Wurlitzer spun out Beverly’s songs, selections she now wished she could rescind.

Or else, invite the eavesdroppers over, to hear what she and Mitchell Conyers were actually conspiring about: Lucy Conyers’s constant request of two napkins in averns, knowing she was going to need to dab some spill made by Mitchell by evening’s end; or Beverly’s husband’s habit of offering people at neighboring tables unprompted cigarettes from his pack, just to have a reason to regale them with whatever new circulating joke tickled him at the time. Trinkets of their spouses’ bar behaviors. Gabbing over ghosts.

As if vocalizing what was missed could quench the missing.

“You got a little something,” Mitchell announced. Beverly flushed when he aimed a finger where her lips converged, thinking he meant to wipe it away himself. At her reaction Mitchell sank his stirring straw into his drink, watching it bob back to surface after letting go. “Sorry. Just a crumb. I’m sure I got something too. And there’s a less clumsy way I could’ve told you. Always left elegant to Lucy.”

“What counts—” She removed her compact to recover. “—is you kept me from looking a mess.”

Then her selections played. First the Sinatra song she knew well, followed by a Dinah Shore she didn’t. They listened, pretending initially these weren’t their choices, then half-humming once melodies resolved into choruses. She heard in Sinatra’s syllables her husband during courtship, begging his grinning date for “five minutes more” before vanishing behind her garden gate. Then she frowned. This song she could recite by heart was one that didn’t exist at all in her husband’s. He’d been absent entirely during its climb up the popular charts, and its replays on the kitchen radio where Beverly cooked alone and sang along.

“Probably good we wounded up alone,” Mitchell said, mispronouncing “wound” so it seemed to refer to damaged skin and tissue. “I’d been wanting to thank you for all the work you done. Been top-notch. Best I coulda hoped. Don’t mean from a female, I mean period. Course, with the boys all back—or, well, on their way at any rate—a bunch of business owners been installing them right back into their old jobs. Even if it means plucking a woman out who’s done it good while they been away.”

This was why he was glad they “wounded up alone.” He was, Beverly imagined, about to put an end to her tenure. This drink, his severance package. Suddenly his mispronunciation made poignant sense. Mitchell would let Beverly go regretfully, and in stages, gently suggesting tonight she scale back her hours, so she can keep the household afloat until her husband’s discharge. Beverly studied condensation constellations along her palms, picked up from the glass.

“I was too young to serve in the war before, and too—” He pointed to indicate his baldness, paunch, age lines. “—for this one.” Then he surprised Beverly by telling her that, while there was no question we owed soldiers a good earning in return once they returned from their sacrifices, he wanted her to know her job would remain hers, long as she wanted, “even after Jim gets back.” Hearing her husband’s name spoken aloud vaguely shocked Beverly, though why should it? “When Europe first erupted, I was a little shaver spoiling for a fight. Not getting into the fray angered me. But between us? I was grateful I couldn’t get shipped out this time. I knew Lucy was in her fight’s last rounds. Don’t know I would’ve beared losing any of that last time we had together. Not holding her hand at the end. Coming back to a room without her—”

He stirred his ice cubes violently, until Beverly slipped a tissue in his palm. “Here.” She pointed not at her eye, but her lips. “You’ve got a little something.”

Mitchell gave his face a fast wipe, thanking her behind the tissue.

“You don’t know how,” she continued, “to fill empty rooms on your own. Not at first.”

“Think you’ll stay with us? After Jim’s back? Extra income would be good for two newlyweds.”

Hearing them described as newlyweds chafed. As if their matrimony thus far was little but an engine idling at a red, awaiting a light change. Well, wasn’t that so? Not nine months savored before her husband’s drafting; a union made provisional almost as soon as consecrated. “We haven’t talked about . . . he’s so frustrated over his delayed return. We’re both frustrated. Almost a whole year’s peace, and still a half-world away. He wants to see me again so bad. Get back to who we were before.”

“I may not be the brightest bush,” Mitchell said. “Hell, I know I’m not. Know how I know it?”

Beverly didn’t.

“Because Lucy, weak as she was, was the one to pull your job application out the trash. I didn’t think a woman belonged in the shop. She had a habit of sticking in my face stuff I was too pigheaded to see or say on my own. She knew you’d do the job proud. And she’d want me to ask you to stay. Demand I do.”

“He’ll be appreciative for the offer. Very. I am too. But this was never going to be my role.”

“Do you like that it got to be? Or is it a bridge you’re glad you’ve almost reached the end of?” Mitchell glared at his drink, as if it contained one belt more than he bargained for. He laughed over the Dinah Shore song’s final fading phrases. “Lucy woulda definitely worded that one more . . .”

“. . . elegant?”

“Right. Jim’s gonna come back changed, how could you not? But how could you know exactly how, either? Course, you haven’t exactly stayed frozen in place. You’ve learned to keep books. Pay suppliers. Fix a flat! He sailed away on a ship, but you, you’ve helped run one. The people who stayed behind changed plenty, too.” With the selections done playing, it seemed all eyes in the tavern once again had settled on the two of them. Mitchell dug in his pocket. “Got too quiet in here. I got a nickel could put an end to that, if there’s another song you’d like to hear bandage up this silence.”

Thinking of the Shore song melody, continuing to cycle around her mind, she looked at his coin, then her drained glass, aware that a barmaid dressed like a Bavarian wench from another time would be swinging by their big table soon, asking if Beverly would like another.

Would she like another?

Corner Four
The service station floodlights finally blink off for the night, replaced by a solitary firefly match burst, and angular spit of flame. Cautious ember. Mitchell doing his level best to look like he isn’t looking one corner ahead. Like he doesn’t see Beverly huddled in the booth.

The rain has let up, taking a tone of happy splatter, a paint coat renewing a drab room.

Traffic, too, has lightened. Automobiles barreling by when Beverly first stood her post have by now docked inside garages, their drivers digging into dinners, or even, by now, scraping remnants.

Dusk’s last scraps broadcast radiant color bands along the horizon. Ember burns beneath the fuel island, like some star that won’t recede until Beverly wishes upon it. And so, in her shabby, sopping garment, she allows daydreams to drench drab thoughts. Thinks of their honeymoon. Just inherited the Studebaker as a wedding gift, and this was their maiden marital voyage, winding up the Panhandle of Texas. Stretching out at the Four Corners Monument, so they could straddle all states at once—a limb in each territory, stabbing each other with awkward kisses while twisting and navigating unseen borders. How her husband at one point playfully pushed Beverly, so she spilled over into one state. “Now don’t be getting distant on me,” he’d joked. Adding quietly, after reeling her in for another kiss, “That right there’s further than I ever want you drifting. Not a whole state separating us. Not one measly foot. Stay close always.”

That’s not really a wish, though. So Beverly bids headlights to crest the hill, driven by a stranger with an open seat and willing ear. It would be easy enough to wave down such help, be brought back home, but she is more in the mood for pursuit of this new self she has grown accustomed to and wants not to give up. In fact, some version of her is already making its way around the juncture. A version who wishes not to be tucked as tightly as her husband yanks their bedsheet corners, an effect of so many surprise barracks inspections. There are more than four corners on a bed, to a town, in a life. Jubilant sound pours from the tavern patio, replacing the halted rain. The after-dinner crowd. She cannot allow this daydream to be an ignored engine knock, a repair she refuses to bear until it’s beyond fixing. She reaches into her purse. This coin is the size of her conscience. She owes herself a splurge. She’ll allow the telephone operator to attempt connecting to her house once more, and once only; then, after her nickel’s returned, will wind round the crosswalk, order any drink she pleases, sipping in time to “The Gypsy,” that song sung by Shore she first heard spin out of the exuberant Wurlitzer, still starring on Your Hit Parade nearly a year after its release, a song which hasn’t ceased playing in her mind since its phrases filtered through the smoky tavern to catch her. Foreign in all ways, and pleasing.  

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