The room was uncomfortably hot today, or maybe it was the thick cotton of Mildred’s stuffy old dress. Either way, she was tempted to cut her hair into one of the stylish bobs rather than creating a faux bob every morning. It would certainly save her time and cool her off considerably. Mildred wished the office would turn the AC up or move to a building that had windows, but she knew the higher-ups didn’t care that much about the gals in the basement. A blinking yellow light at the bottom of her row alerted Mildred that her attention was needed elsewhere.
“Hello, who may I connect you with this afternoon,” she asked in the sweetest tone she could muster.
“Send me over to the Rochester line please,” a gruff voice replied.
Mildred did just that, plugging the connector in the corresponding slot and flicking the switch. She watched as the little light indicating if the receiver had been picked up flickered as the phone call was answered. Normally she would have listened in for a few minutes to see if anything interesting was being said, but she knew nothing interesting ever happens in Rochester.
Mildred’s gaze roamed around her little telephone switchboard room. Several of her coworkers were busy connecting other calls, some of them looked half-asleep as they plugged one end of the connector into the correct slot. Wires of varying shades of black and brown were strewn everywhere, some not even connected to anything. The five other girls in her section were all grouped around Dorothy’s station, near the end of the row. Excited whispers drifted over to Mildred, who was doing her best to pick up the slack from the other girls.
They’re lucky it’s a Monday afternoon, she thought as she connected another client to someone too far away to walk across the street and have a chat. Unfortunately, the person Mildred wanted to talk to was out of reach even by telephone. The wooden door to their small workspace opened with a crack. Immediately the other girls jumped back to their stations, trying to look busy as one of the suited supervisors inspected all rows and stations. He adjusted his glasses, nodded his approval and left the room, leaving his heavy cologne behind. The whispers once again took up residency in the room. Mildred was about to ask them all what they were gabbing about when her little yellow light lit up again.
“Hello, thank you for calling the American Bell Telephone Company. How may I help you today?”
“You sound like you’re quite a dame. Say, you got any plans tonight,” a familiar voice cooed.
“Tony Rizzo you know better than to be calling me when I’m at work. The bosses monitor this kind of thing! And did you forget you promised to go to that reading for the new mystery novel with me tonight?”
There was a pause and Mildred imagined her plans for the evening going up in smoke. Antony Rizzo, for all his charming smile and boyish curls promised, was the worst for sticking to plans. If he wasn’t one of the only links to Charles she had left, she would’ve told him to get lost long ago.
“You have to cancel again don’t you,” it wasn’t a question, just a disappointed statement.
“Millie, you know there’s nothing that would’ve stopped me from falling asleep at that reading only for you to knock the back of my head until I woke up, but I got called into work. You know how hard I’m trying to impress the bosses,” there was a sincere plea in his words.
“It’s all Jake. See you around Tony,” Mildred replied before disconnecting herself.
The girls were still giggling around Dorothy’s desk but Dorothy wasn’t paying them any attention, she was too busy looking at the deflated Mildred. Dorothy stood up, her red hair bouncing in its stylish bob. Her heels clicked against the tile as she made her way over to Mildred.
“Millie, guess what I just overheard,” her voice was too perky for such a dull day. “Oh, you’ll never guess. There’s a gin joint close to my apartment that’s having a rub tonight!”
Dorothy loved living on the trendy side of life, and Mildred thought it agreed with her. Dorothy was always heading out to whatever new gin joint popped up in the city. She would come into work and regale the other girls with tales of splendor and mischievousness, usually with some poor fella mixed up in all of it. Mildred had always wanted to join her friend for a night of glorious debauchery, just to forget for one night the reality she’s stuck in.
“You just have to join me tonight,” Dorothy whined, sticking her bottom lip out.
“I don’t have anything to wear Dottie! I’ll stick out like an old jalopy at a car show - not to mention if the police raid it -”
“Don’t be such a wet blanket! I’ve been to a million of these parties. The rods who run these joints wouldn’t let their booze get confiscated by the coppers! Please, none of the other gals will join me. And it sounds like your fella just canceled on your plans so I know you don’t have a good excuse.”
He’s not my fella, Mildred thought as she bit her lower lip and looked around the room. Boring beige walls stared back as if daring her to add a little color to her life. Her brother Charles would have told her to go for it – if he had returned from the Great War alive. She had to go – she had to live for Charles and take all the chances he would never get to.
“Alright, I’ll go. But you need to doll me up.”
Dorothy’s eyes lit up and she squealed before giving Mildred a quick hug and returning to her work station.
After their shift ended, Mildred and Dorothy took a cramped and bouncy streetcar to Mildred’s apartment that was a few blocks from their office. Mildred lived on the ground floor of a female-only building. The gray mortar between the red bricks looked especially dull that afternoon. She said hello to Mrs. Jones – her landlady – before unlocking her apartment door.
It wasn’t much – a small living room with a velvet rose couch and a little oak bookshelf with a floor lamp looming over the couch. An even smaller bedroom with just enough room for her bed, a closet, and an oak dresser that matched her bookshelf. Her bathroom contained only a small bathtub, toilet, and utility sink. The kitchen would never play host to grand holiday dinners, but it was enough for Mildred on her own.
She’d chosen to decorate her walls with family photographs – her history neatly displayed for any guest who walked in and cared enough to glance at her wall. Her parents’ faces gazed down from the family porch back in Roxbury, New York. They still visited her – though her mother hated that her daughter lived alone in the big city. It didn’t matter how many times Mildred reminded her that she could handle herself – after all, Charles and Antony had taught her a thing or two when she went out on her first date – her mother still worried.
Dorothy pointed at a photograph of Charles in his military uniform. “Who is this handsome man and please tell me he’s looking for someone to spend the rest of his life with!”
Mildred didn’t glance at the portrait as she replied, “That’s my brother Charlie. He died in the trenches.”
Dorothy slowly curled her finger away from the photograph. She looked anywhere but Mildred’s face. Mildred shook her head and walked over to her bookshelf. Pulling a random book that was just thick enough from its place on her packed bookshelf, Mildred pried the window that sat just above the shelf open and slipped the book under it. A trick Charles had taught her before he left and the world caught fire.
“Mrs. Jones gives us a curfew,” she laughed while Dorothy smiled at her friend’s daring.
The pair took another packed streetcar to Dorothy’s apartment, the journey a little less bumpy than the first. Dorothy lived in a lavish twenty-story skyrise on 54th street. Her apartment was located on the sixth floor and it overlooked the beautiful cityscape, the skyscrapers reaching like Earth’s fingers towards the universe above. Mildred’s entire apartment could have fit comfortably in Dorothy’s living room.
“How do you afford this Dottie?”
She waved a dismissive hand at her home and said, “Daddy takes care of it. Honestly, I think he just found the first thing that was available. Little did he know it would put me right next to some of the best gin joints in all of New York!”
Though Dorothy could have hosted half of New York in her home, Mildred doubted that she’d ever even touched her kitchen – it was immaculate! The granite counters gleamed under the warm glow of the lighting fixtures and there wasn’t even a breakfast dish in the sink. Mildred followed Dorothy to her room, all the while feeling out of place in her frumpy old frock. Dorothy instructed Mildred to wait on her bed while she returned with some options for their evening out.
Mildred took in the room while she waited. Dorothy’s home was the complete opposite of her own. No photos adorned the walls – except for a larger-than-life portrait of Dorothy. Her bed could have fit at least five people – maybe even seven if she pulled all her decorative pillows off. Mildred pictured all the things she could do with that much space. Bookshelves as tall as the ceiling, overflowing with mystery novels and spilling poets out onto the lush carpet floors. She could host dinner parties every weekend, her mother wouldn’t worry about her living alone if this was where she lived. Dorothy returned with several dresses on her arms. She laid all of them out on her bed.
“Which one are you going to wear?”
“Oh, I’ve worn all of these ones before, my brand new one is in the closet. The dark green will ab-so-lute-ly be striking against my hair! Now, which of these old rags do you fancy Millie?”
All of the options were so far away from the dress she currently had on that Mildred felt overwhelmed. The beadings, fringe, and overall low cut of the dresses before her seemed to say that if she made the wrong choice, she would end up on a quest she was unprepared for. Finally, she settled on a beautiful black and gold dress with a mixture of beading and fringe at the bottom; the cut was a little lower than she would have liked, but it was much higher than the other dresses. Dorothy nodded her approval, Mildred had passed the test.
Dorothy dolled herself up first, starting with a full face of makeup and then moving on to adding a little extra curl to her bob. She set to work on Mildred. She wiped the small amount of makeup Mildred had put on for work off in a single sweeping motion before coating her friend’s face in the best powder money could buy and put so many pins in her head that Mildred was sure she would still be finding them weeks after this adventure. Soon Dorothy declared she was done and Mildred stared at her reflection, unsure of who was staring back. Her mother would just die if she saw the bright red lipstick Mildred wore now. She felt like a real flapper. Dorothy grinned and threw her arms around Mildred saying it was her best work!
The young women spent the next hour or so going over the dos and don’ts of speakeasy etiquette. It was mostly a list of dos. Do say yes when someone asks you to dance, even if you don’t want to. Do try at least one specialty cocktail. Do live a little. Mildred gave herself a small list of don’ts. Don’t mention your dead brother or the war. Don’t hold yourself back. Don’t be a wet blanket.
Smiling, Dorothy stood up and dragged Mildred out of the apartment. They didn’t bother with another streetcar as the 300 Club was only a few blocks west of Dorothy’s apartment and they’d certainly draw attention with their attire. Mildred’s stomach was churning as they got closer to their destination. This was the most daring thing she’d done since she had snuck out with Charles to see the new film A Christmas Carol. That was before he’d shipped off to war. Before she was all her parents had, forcing her to be careful about everything. No, she thought, no sad thoughts tonight. Tonight, I get to live and be someone different.
The 300 Club didn’t strike Mildred as somewhere a speakeasy would be – though that was probably the point. Its red-brick exterior didn’t hint that anything mischievous was happening inside. It looked like any other building on the block. Beautiful ornate doors with the fire-like glow of electric lights inside. Though the 300 Club had two rather large men guarding the entrance. Suddenly Mildred didn’t want to be daring anymore. Ignoring her friend’s change in demeanor, Dorothy charged right up to the two men.
“Hello, boys! Tonight is berries for getting blotto,” she sang, adding a wink for good measure.
The guards didn’t even crack a smile as they opened the door for the girls.
“What was that nonsense, Dottie?”
“The password isn’t exactly going to make sense, Millie. Then the coppers would be all over the gin joints!”
Mildred had almost forgotten about Antony and his cancelation for work, but Dorothy’s casual use of copper brought unwelcome images of Antony in his NYPD blues. A small bubble of guilt bounced around her stomach. Was she betraying everything Antony stood for by sneaking out to an illegal gin joint? Forget it. He skipped out on me, I don’t need to be loyal Mildred for tonight, she thought as a wonderful string of notes came blaring from the open door. Excitement sparkled in Dorothy’s green eyes. She latched onto Mildred’s hand and ran through the door. Everywhere Mildred looked there were women in gorgeous dresses that swayed with each movement and dapper men with their hats slightly askew and cigars hanging from the corners of their mouths. Even the band was mesmerizing as they played their music with vigor and excitement. The deep soulful voice of the lead singer drew Mildred in as if it were hypnotizing her, even if she wasn’t quite sure why a song about cake walking babies was so enticing.
Dorothy pulled Mildred over to the bar, her dress making her look like a glowing emerald in the dim lights of the speakeasy. Dorothy grinned at Mildred before turning her attention to the man pouring drinks.
“Two of your tingliest giggle waters barkeep!”
Mildred took her glass from the slender man, wondering what exactly was in giggle water. Dorothy downed her glass in one gulp, knocking her head back like she’d been doing this her whole life. Deciding to follow suit, Mildred tipped her head back, some of her light brown curls escaping her faux bob. Her eyes widened as the bitter taste hit her tongue and burned her throat. Dorothy laughed as Mildred coughed.
“You might want to start small – or not! Time to let loose! Maybe even catch yourself another fella.”
Mildred grinned and asked the bald bartender for a slightly less alcohol heavy cocktail. Her eyes lit up at the first sip, it was ab-so-lute-ly delicious! When she asked the bartender what he called it, he said it was called a mimosa. Mildred decided she would like to continue ordering this delightful drink.
The music picked up, the horns and saxophones racing to the beat of the drums. The people on the dance floor were dancing in ways Mildred’s mother would say were indecent. It could have been because there wasn’t much room, the stage where the band performed took up most of the open space with plush maroon booths and tables tucked onto the sides of the room. She had a sneaking suspicion the close dancing was more for thrills than convenience. Mildred smiled and grabbed Dorothy’s hand. The two women partnered for a fast-paced foxtrot – Mildred taking the lead. More couples were throwing each other into the air and sliding all over the place. It was like watching fish leaping from a lake.
“What is that,” Mildred asked, her eyes following the frantic yet smooth motions of the closest couple.
“They’re calling it swing – probably because of all the throwing,” Dorothy replied.
They were acrobats, twisting over each other every which way! The fringe of the dresses creating a mesmerizing swaying motion. Big red smiles decorated every woman’s face. A gentleman in green suspenders asked Mildred to dance. She said yes and soon she was learning the basics of swing dance.
His hands were warm as he held Mildred’s, showing her how to cross her right arm across his chest while his right arm straightened across her chest. They were offbeat for several minutes until Mildred understood how to do the movements to the upbeat music. They danced to one or two jazzy songs before Mildred excused herself to rest her feet.
Somehow another mimosa ended up in front of Mildred – not that she minded. She settled in the plush bar stool, watching everyone in the gin joint while sipping her cocktail. It was now three hours into her adventure, and the crowd was beginning to wilt. There were high pitched giggles from women who were half-over-seas, and more than a few couples were necking in the not-so-dark corners. A haze of cigar smoke blurred the other patrons’ faces, but Mildred gasped when she made eye contact with a certain blue-eyed gentleman. Applesauce, she thought as Antony began fighting his way through the crowd towards her. Mildred had lost track of Dorothy after she was pulled away by Green Suspenders, but she couldn’t face Antony on her own or run away leaving Dorothy wondering where she was. Unfortunately, Green Suspenders chose that moment to block Mildred’s line of sight with his blockish figure. He smelled like moonshine and sweat, his green eyes glazed like a donut.
“Hey baby! Want to get out of here for some nookie?”
Mildred may have been new to the party scene but she knew Green Suspenders was being lude and she did not have time for this.
Green Suspenders’ uncomfortably hot hands latched onto Mildred’s upper arm. His heavy breath fanned her face causing her to scrunch her nose in disgust.
“Come on baby, I know you’re a pushover.”
Mildred’s heart was pounding faster than the jazz beat in the background. She could vaguely make out Antony’s muscular frame breaking free of the gaggle of flappers begging for a dance. Green Suspenders tightened his grip on her arm. She stood up, pretending to be the quiff he thought she was. Then she ripped her arm from his grasp and connected her knee to his groin.
“Sorry rummy, but this is one skirt you don’t get to chase,” she said while thanking Charles for teaching her self defense all those years ago.
She turned to start looking for Dorothy when another unwelcome male stopped her. At least Green Suspenders had been drunk and easy to handle. The irate look on Antony’s face told her he would not be so easily kneed in the jewels.
“I thought you had to work,” she grumbled, tucking a loose hair behind her ear.
“I am working. It’s – or it was – an undercover job,” Antony paused to take a deep breath. “What are you doing here Millie? This isn’t exactly a place for a gal like you.”
That was the last straw. Mildred was tempted to repeat the move she’d pulled earlier but that wouldn’t make her feel better for longer than a few minutes. Instead, she squared her bare shoulders and glared at her friend.
“Why? Because I’m a wet blanket who enjoys book readings? Welcome to the twentieth century, Tony! A woman can enjoy multiple walks of life!”
“I promised Charlie that I’d look out for you. You being here breaks all kinds of rules.”
Mildred wasn’t sure if it was the mimosas kicking in or if Dorothy was rubbing off on her but she was tired of living by everyone else’s rules. When she was younger, she’d lived by her parents and Charles’ rules because she didn’t know anything else. Now she lived by Mrs. Jones’ and Antony’s rules. She wanted to be like the characters in her novels, breaking rules and living for herself, not for others.
“I have lived by other people’s rules and expectations for too long. Doesn’t anyone care what I want? I wanted to see the world and experience things outside of Roxbury. I was going to see where all the great authors of our time lived. When Charlie died in the damned trenches, I lost my chance. How could I do that to my parents? What if something happened to me and they were left with nothing but two gravestones and pain?”
Antony opened his mouth to reply but Mildred held up a hand to silence him. She had been silent for eight long years. She could no longer hold her tongue and bow her head.
“So I moved to New York City instead. My parents could handle that and I got a little room to breathe. But did I? Everywhere I turned, my dead brother was stalking me in the shadows. I miss him so much, but how long can I let him haunt me? I did everything I could to keep him alive in my memory, I even put up with you canceling plans over and over again because you were his best friend and just the act of us being in the same room had some traces of Charlie. Sometimes it felt like it could be more than just that but now I know it was all out of obligation on your part,” she took a shaky breath, a traitorous tear escaping from the prison it had been held in for eight years. “I release you from whatever blood oath you swore. You are no longer bound to me or I to you.”
Mildred turned to leave, but for the second time that night a hand latched onto her upper arm. Antony drew her towards his chest until she was enveloped in a warm embrace. She was tucked against his rapidly beating heart. The music and laughter faded until nothing existed outside of Antony’s embrace.
“It was never about obligation Millie. I needed you as much as you needed me. I’m sorry I left you feeling like you had to pretend to be something else. I know you’re not just one thing,” Antony said while loosening his hold on her. “Though you do smell an awful lot like the man you dropped to the floor. How much have you had to drink tonight?”
“Oh turn off Officer Rizzo for once –”
Unfortunately, the world had not stopped while the two shared a tender moment. Green Suspenders had recovered and his green eyes were wide as he heard the words coming from Mildred’s mouth.
“There’s a copper in here!”
The trumpeter squelched, the singer swore into the mic. The once satiated crowd turned into a herd of stampeding monsters. Everyone’s eyes were bloodshot, the women’s faces seemed to be melting. The entire speakeasy descended into chaos as couples ripped apart and dashed towards every exit. Antony began pulling Mildred towards the back exit but she pulled him back.
“I can’t leave without Dottie! She’s my friend –” at the moment Mildred caught sight of Dorothy by the front door.
They made eye contact and Dorothy mouthed for Mildred to go and that she’d see her at work before she disappeared with the bartender. Mildred held back a smile, her friend would have another captivating tale for the gals at work. She let herself be led out the back door into the brisk night air. The soft light of the back alley cast a romantic glow on the fleeing party-goers, almost as if they were escaping a gruesome battle.
“Well, the bosses won’t be impressed with that graceful ending. Though I suppose I did break up an illegal party,” Antony laughed, running a hand through his sandy curls.
Mildred shook her head and walked towards the end of the small alley. Once they emerged onto the street, she paused to look up at the city skyline. Every day a new skyscraper was being built, promising it would be the tallest one yet, so the city was dotted with buildings in progress and others blazing like lit candles waiting to be dwarfed by a brand new dream. Each one reaching for the stars while the people walked beneath their light.
“I really am sorry about missing the reading you know.”
“Walk me home and I’ll call it square. This time.”
Antony took his suit jacket off, offering it to Mildred. She draped the soft material around her bare shoulders, curling her fingers into the lapel to keep it secure. There were a few automobiles rushing around on the dark streets as the pair walked the several blocks back to Mildred’s apartment building, but no other signs of life in the growing city. At some point Mildred opted to pull her borrowed heels off, walking the last two blocks barefoot. They paused just out of sight of her building, hoping to not disturb a sleeping Mrs. Jones. Mildred handed Antony his jacket back, their fingers brushing for just a moment.
“You know, Charlie would be proud of you.”
“For sneaking out, getting drunk, and then breaking up a party? Yeah sounds like something Charlie would do,” she laughed.
“No, for standing your ground and speaking your mind for once. But I think he would definitely have loved the rest of evening as well, particularly you nailing that man where it counts.”
Mildred stood on her tiptoes and pressed a kiss to Antony’s smooth cheek. “Goodnight Tony. Thanks for not throwing me in jail.”
Antony smiled and told her anytime. Mildred snuck over to her window, careful to avoid being in the light too much. She gave one last wave to Antony before hoisting herself up and through the window. As she pulled her book-stopper from the window ledge, she noticed the title. It was T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland. Tucking the black book under her arm, she recalled a line from one of his sections.
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with the spring rain.
And for once, she understood what Elliot was getting at. She changed out of her borrowed costume and into her familiar cotton nightgown before snuggling into bed. For once, she wasn’t worried about what the next day had in store for her. Maybe, just maybe, for once she would wake up and be Mildred Brown the woman who loved books and dancing in the rain, instead of the girl with the dead brother.