Monday, May 22, 2023

She Must Leave Washington Before it's too Late

by Sherry Morris

January 1945 in Washington, DC

Now past midnight, across town in Anacostia, the mournful winter wind harmonized horribly with the off-key singing from down the hall at the boarding house. Chloe lay shivering in cold water, unaware how much time had passed since she’d drawn the bath. It was her desperate attempt to wash the evil away. Succumbing to the incessant pounding on the door, she whimpered, “Orpha, if you and Shirley  stop that wretched caterwauling I’ll vacate the room.”

Chloe stumbled out of the tub onto the cold pink and black floor. Lavender-scented suds slid down her legs and pooled on the flower-patterned tile.

“It’s Mrs. Grogan dear. Did your special fella come through for ya tonight? I want all the romantic details.”

Shivering, Chloe leaned over and twisted a worn but bright white towel around her hair. She shoved her arms into an old terrycloth bathrobe, wincing as the rough fabric abraded her sensitive skin. She pulled the frayed belt tight.

Chloe jerked the chain on the tub stopper, releasing the dirty water. She stared at the hundred dollar bill. Slither away and leave me alone. It didn’t heed her will. She yanked the money out and wadded it up with all her might, then shoved it into the bottom of the wastebasket, underneath the bathroom discards.

“Chloe? Can ya hear me darlin’? Did he pop the question?” the landlady asked.

Chloe knelt on the wet tiles, dunking her hands into the dwindling water and flattening them on the bottom of the tub. Water poured from her cuffs when she pulled them back out. The cast iron drainpipe burped as the bathtub emptied.

Twisting the crystal knob, Chloe opened the door and gagged at the stench of burnt eggnog. After switching the light off, she crossed the hall to her room.

Mrs. Grogan gasped at the sight of Chloe’s legs and face. She followed Chloe in and shut the door. “Oh my God child! You were attacked! Or did…did he do this to ya? I’ll go and fetch Doc Morton. Or do ya need to go to the hospital?”

“No! Don’t call anyone. You mustn’t tell! Promise, Mrs. G?” Chloe pleaded, nearly hysterical.

“Shh… Calm down, now just calm down darlin’. Ya know I’ll do ya right.” The landlady pulled Chloe to her bosom and stroked the towel on her hair. “There there now. Everything will be all right.”

“Ouch! You’re hurting me.”

Mrs. Grogan let go. “I’m so sorry, sweetness. Forgive—” “No, I’m sorry, Mrs. G. I mean…”

“Shh-shh-shh. Hush child. “ She tenderly ran a finger along Chloe’s cheek. “I’ll be back in a moment.” The landlady waddled off with purpose.

Chloe located her big suitcase, wedged in the tiny closet. Determined to extract the luggage, she inhaled and heaved to the left. The suitcase dislodged, propelling a wire hanger with a pink cotton blouse. The hanger stung her chest. The blouse covered her face. She sneezed and dropped the suitcase as she grabbed her ribs. Dear God and Jesus in heaven. Please let me feel better. Please let me wake up in North Carolina. Forgive me of my sins. Amen.

She heard panting as Mrs. Grogan swept aside the makeup and curlers on the dresser and deposited an aluminum tray. A waffle-sized powder puff fell to the floor. Chloe held in another sneeze and picked up the suitcase. Mrs. Grogan bent down with a groan and plucked up the puff, tossing it onto the dresser. She tugged on the suitcase but was unable to release it from Chloe’s grip.

“Where do ya think you’re going on such a treacherous night? Young lady, ya just put that thing away and get under the covers. Here’s some warm eggnog and a couple of chloral hydrate capsules to help ya sleep.”

“No! I have to get out of here, now leave me alone! I’ve messed everything up. What don’t you understand? I can’t stay in Washington. I have to disappear before it’s too late!”

“Why? Just call the Metropolitan Police on the beast!”

“No, you don’t understand and…I…I can’t explain it. I have to leave! Believe me and don’t ask anything! Please?” How much time do I have before they find out? What will they do to me?

With a look of uneasy puzzlement, Mrs. Grogan questioned, “But where will ya go? Back home to your Mam in Carolina? Do ya want me to call her for ya?”

Chloe dropped the suitcase onto the tapestry area rug, grabbed Mrs. Grogan’s chubby arms and stared dead into her chocolate eyes. “I can never go back to North Carolina now. Not in this—oh, I’ve said too much! All right… You have to help me. Please, Mrs. G?”

Mrs. Grogan embraced her favorite tenant and affirmed, “I will help ya darlin’. Always. Now what is it that ya need?”

Chloe paced the room. As she passed by the wobbly-legged desk, she brushed against an old tin of pennies, knocking it over. They tinkled like a gentle metallic waterfall puddling on the hardwood floor. The two women bumped heads as they squatted to pick up the coins.

“Can you get my paycheck from the Bureau next Friday? And deposit it in my checking account? I’ll call in on Monday morning and tell them…oh, something!”

“How ‘bout that your sister’s baby has come early and ya have to go to Baltimore to help out with her older ones?”

Chloe’s stomach felt like it jumped to her throat. She knew she had to keep up the charade for Mrs. Grogan of having a sister. “No! Not that! I’ll tell them my Momma took ill and I have to go and look after her.” Chloe reached the last two pennies and plunked them into the can.

Mrs. Grogan put a stubby finger on her fleshy cheek and began tapping. “But where will ya go? To make a new beginning. Hollywood? New York? Iowa? No, not Iowa…” Mrs. Grogan clambered to her feet. “I know! Miami Beach!”

“Miami Beach?”

“Yes darlin’, of course Miami Beach. It’s eighty degrees down there now don’t ya know. I’ll call Paddy and let him know to expect ya. He’s my late husband’s cousin. He owns a bakery, finest in southern Florida. He rents rooms out over top of the place. I’ll make sure he has a vacancy and if he doesn’t, then he’ll just have to make one.”

Chloe sat cross-legged on the floor, adjusting her robe. “Don’t you read the newspaper, Mrs. G? The beach has been commandeered by the Army Air Corps for their boot camp. The hotels are being used as barracks, for heaven’s sake.” She rattled the pennies, staring into the can.

Faint rays of sunshine broke through the vicious storm clouds in Chloe’s mind. Miami Beach. Warmth, yes, oh to be warm again. Bakery, yum. But soldiers everywhere? How depressing. Wait…soldiers everywhere, about to be sent off to war…scared and lonely men.

Chloe stretched to reach the desk and shoved the tin can on top. She pulled herself up. “Yes! Mrs. Grogan, Miami Beach sounds…perfect. “

The landlady plopped Chloe’s suitcase up onto the bed. She grabbed an armload of clothes from the closet and tossed them on the quilt. Removing the first dress from its hanger, she shook it out and rolled it into a tight cylinder. “Ya get less wrinkles this way darlin’. I read it in a magazine don’t ya know. “

As Chloe touched up her bruised face with pancake and rouge, the Andrews Sisters’ snappy song, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”, drifted in from down the hall. She coughed while smacking a powder puff all over her forehead. None of this happened. I don’t exist. I’ll just disappear into paradise and everything will be all right again. She turned to Mrs. Grogan. “How do I look?”

“I shoulda married Max Factor. The man is a genius don’t ya know. Ya’d never guess what happened tonight. Don’t forget your lipstick darlin’, and you’re good enough to dance at the White House.” She hung the empty hangers on the wooden closet rod. “I’ll leave ya to dress, dear, and I’ll go call ol’ Paddy. And then, when he says yes, I’ll order ya a cab.”

“The trains do run all night, don’t they?”

“Yes darlin’. Now you get ready quick and be on your way. “

When Mrs. Grogan stepped into the hallway, she hollered, “Girls, ya turn that racket off. I don’t care if ya don’t have your nursing classes tomorrow. We have rules in this house.”

Chloe winced as she painted her scabbed lips a deep wine color. Her fingers got caught in a snarl as she combed through the carrot-colored strands of her hair. Satisfied, she packed her round makeup trunk.

Chloe emptied out her desk drawer, packing her birth and baptismal certificates, high school and college diplomas, pencils and a ruler. Hmm, the Mickeys might come in handy… Chloe scooped up the chloral hydrate capsules, dropped them in an envelope, licked it shut and placed it on top of her rolled blue gingham dress. She stretched a sock over the can of pennies and sunk it into the bottom of her suitcase. Her hand trembled as she tossed in two pink envelopes, recent letters from her “sister”.

As Chloe lay across the patchwork quilt on her twin bed, she was grateful the landlady had left and wouldn’t see the tears of pain as she struggled into her girdle. She finished dressing and then slipped her coat and gloves on. Chloe draped a beige cowl over her head and wrapped it around her neck.

She looked all over the space that had been her home for the last eleven months. The furnished room for let seemed emptier than when she had first moved in. Chloe placed her key on the desk then turned off the light.

She tiptoed down the dark narrow hall to the kitchen. Big band music blared from the radio in the back room. The taxi driver announced his arrival by leaning on the horn.

Mrs. Grogan pressed an envelope into her hand.

“Here’s Paddy’s address. He’ll be a-waitin’ for ya darlin’. He’s good stock don’t ya know. He’ll see that nobody harms ya there in paradise. Don’t ya worry none, I’ll take care of your paycheck. If Paddy fusses ’bout the telephone then ya call me person-to- person every week. And drop me some postcards. And if I ever get my hands on the beast who did this to you…so help me…”

Teardrops spilled down Chloe’s face as she hugged and kissed her landlady. Her friend. She hurried to the cab, not allowing herself to look back. She was grateful she had slipped out without having to explain her departure to the other girls.

* * * * *

At Washington’s Union Station, the driver pulled the brim of his hat low, covering his eyes before he helped her out onto the shoveled and salted sidewalk. He retrieved her luggage from the trunk.

With her hand still trembling, she held out a dollar. “Keep the change.”

He hesitated before taking it. “Thanks. Would you want for me to carry the bags in, miss?”

“No thank you.” She entered the grand domed building by way of a revolving door and zigzagged through the bustling crowd. At the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railway counter, she joined the end of the queue. Chloe set her luggage down on the polished marble floor and ran her hands along the soft burgundy velvet ropes. Velvet. Like the choir robe I used to wear at The Church of the Good Shepherd. Back in North Carolina. Where I should’ve stayed.

* * * * *

Still outside, the cabby removed his hat and ran his fingers through his greasy white hair. He paced in front of the train station, peering in the brightly lit windows. Shoving through the revolving door, he made a beeline to a phone booth. He dropped a nickel and spun the dial. “She’s at Union Station at the RF&P desk. Shall I see where she’s headed?”

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