Portland, Oregon – 1955
Helen Brandt should never have gone to work that day. Northwest Paper wouldn’t have missed me, she thought.
She dropped her headset next to the Dictaphone and pressed her thumbs against the bridge of her nose, willing back both tears and the beginning of a headache. All around her, typewriter keys clattered, fingernails clicked, and bells dinged. The desks in the typing pool of Northwest Paper faced a white wall that sported nothing but a round clock. She sat in the fifth row, next to one of the large windows that faced out toward Broadway. Like the other Dictaphone operators, she was lucky to occupy a window seat.
Across Broadway, in a building of thick gray stone, sat another typing pool, mirror image of their own, with its own set of Dictaphone operators staring blankly out the window. Daydreaming of boyfriends or the tick of the minute hand that signaled 5 p.m. and the end of another day.
To her right, Lois Rosner frowned and peered at a letter filled with the loops and strikes of shorthand sent from an executive secretary on the second floor. Her dark red nails froze mid-strike over her typewriter keys. She leaned forward, nose nearly touching the paper.
“Those girls downstairs get their jobs because of their looks.” She whipped the paper from its stand and dangled it in the air between her desk and Helen’s. “When I was an executive secretary, well … I don’t need to tell you.”
Helen took the paper. She blinked and tried to focus. “I think it says ‘contractual argument.’ Or ‘conceited ape-man.’ Possibly ‘constipated anthill.’”
Lois puckered her lips and squinted at Helen over her glasses. She blew out a breath, lifting and dropping a gray curl. “Are you all right?”
Helen lifted her mouth in a tight brittle smile. “I’m perfectly fine,” she said. But she was not all right. And worse still, she had to keep her pain a secret. She could never say that her lover died three years ago, this very day and very hour and her name was Evelyn. She stood and handed the paper back. “I need some air.”
None of the other typists looked up as she passed their desks. She was glad for it; glad no one looked closely enough to notice the clench in her jaw or the tic at the corner of her eye. She pushed open the doors to the stairs. Mid-flight, she stopped and glanced at her wristwatch. The second hand ticked, staccato echoes against the walls and linoleum flooring. She sank down, pulling at the collar of her blouse, hoping for some air to cool her skin. Her fingers touched the small filigreed locket at her throat.
The memory surged back and swamped her: sunlight pooling on the hardwood floor of their old bungalow, Evelyn humming as she puttered in the kitchen, Helen at the table reading the paper, still in her robe for it was a glorious and lazy Saturday.
“Let’s go to the movies tonight,” Helen said. “How about The Quiet Man?”
Evelyn kissed the top of Helen’s head. Soft lips, warm breath. “I love John Wayne.”
“Liar. You love Maureen O’Hara.”
Evelyn smiled down, fluttering her eyelashes over brown eyes that melted Helen. “I love you. And we’re out of milk. And we need blueberry pancakes.”
Evelyn gathered her purse, walked out the door, and never came home.
Goddamn Evelyn for not watching where she was going.
Heels clattered on the stairs below Helen, and slowed on the landing.
A young woman stood with a hand on her hip, her head tilted to the side. She frowned, biting her lip. She had the reddest hair Helen had ever seen, and a smattering of freckles no foundation could ever cover. Her dress pinched at the waist and flowed wide with flocks of red flowers. She held a gaudy yellow clutch purse. “You look like you could use a smoke, too.”
Helen grabbed the railing and pulled herself up. Smoothed her skirt. “No. Sorry, I don’t …”
The woman reached out her hand, grasping Helen’s and shaking it. “I’m Frances. From the second floor.”
“Helen. Third floor.”
“Of course you are. I see you in the elevator every morning.” Frances stared at her, as if she was expecting something from Helen, though there was nothing Helen could think of to say. Without warning, the woman stepped nearer and touched a finger to Helen’s cheek. “There’s nothing about Northwest Paper that should make you cry.”
Helen jerked back. “Just a bad day.”
Frances snapped open her purse and drew out a handkerchief. “Here.” She pressed the hankie into her hand. Then she took out a compact mirror, snapping it open and facing it toward Helen. “Let’s get some water on your face and you’ll be good as new.”
She wrapped an arm around Helen’s waist, and when she smiled, a deep dimple showed in her left cheek. It felt so alien: this arm that held her, this kindness from a stranger, those green eyes that glittered and questioned and held Helen’s gaze just a second too long. Just enough to make Helen catch her breath, and keep herself from falling into those eyes.
Helen, though, knew what Frances saw: a 32-year-old, unexceptional ash blonde in a dark wool skirt and jacket, the features of both herself and her clothes too sharp at the edges.
“Have you been to The Paragon?” Frances asked.
Helen tensed and stepped away. The Paragon. Dark and dingy, tucked at the end of an oily alley with one single blue bulb to mark the door. Yes, she knew The Paragon. She and Evelyn had danced there, wrapped around each other, no one bothering them. Swayed to Sammy Kaye through tinny jukebox speakers.
“You’re very direct, aren’t you?”
Frances lifted an eyebrow. Her lips curled in a satisfied smile. “It lets me find out where people stand. Come on, then. Let’s get you cleaned up. ”