The next morning, they were back at their jobs. Max threw himself into his work and Allison started work on her next assignment; an article on how much the city planned to spend upgrading several parks. It was boring, but it was real news of a sort.
“Hey Allison. Welcome back.” Bob on the Job was back.
“Hello, Bob. Feeling better? I heard you were sick.”
“A little, but I’ll be all right. I figure it’s like that false alarm I had a while back where I thought I had the Spanish flu. Turned out it was just a bad cold.”
She looked at him. “You look a little flush. Do you have a temperature?”
He shrugged. “I dunno. I thought it was just hot in here.”
“You should get yourself checked.”
“Now you sound like my wife. She was on about going to the sawbones just this morning.”
“Well, for once, why don’t you listen to her?”
“Look, Bob. I know I discourage some of your romantic efforts and send you on your way, but I don’t want anything to happen to you. Go to the doctor.”
“All right, all right, but on one condition.”
“Bob, for heaven’s sakes…”
“You go to lunch with me at the Belvedere Hotel.”
“Bob, you’re married and I’m engaged.”
“It’s lunch, not a honeymoon. What’s wrong with two coworkers breaking bread?”
“Then I’m not going to the doctor.”
She looked at him carefully. He really did look flushed. “All right, Bob, I’ll go to lunch with you, but I have a condition of my own; I bring a girlfriend along.”
“Done,” said Bob.
“And only after you get a clean bill of health and start looking a lot better.”
“I’ll make an appointment for this afternoon.” Bob scurried off for the nearest telephone.
“Allison.” Mr Tully was motioning for Allison to come to his office.
She entered the glass paneled room and he motioned her into a chair. She had to move a pile of papers from the seat before she could sit. Tully’s filing system was notorious.
“Allison, it’s no secret that you’re doing a good job around here for a woman. Hell, you’re doing a good job for anybody, but with the war over we’re shifting our focus a bit to look a little harder at domestic stories.”
“Such as the city parks budget?”
“Right. People are tired of reading about the war, or about the Influenza, or about what a mess Europe is in. They want to get back to normal, or what they think should be normal. They want happy stories; stories that don’t make you think.”
Allison nodded. “Well, yes, but…”
“That’s why I’m shifting you to the Society Page. With your talent, you can make those upper crust stiffs seem almost interesting. I want people to read about a debutante party and feel like they are there in person. I want them to read about a society wedding that’s so vivid they can taste the cake. You’ll be working for Millicent Crumble. She’s been our society page lady for almost 20 years. You start today. This is a great opportunity.”
A great opportunity for obscurity, Allison thought.
Things were not going smoothly at Parson, Jenkins, that morning either.
“So Max, did you come up with anybody we could use over on the shore?”
Max shook his head. “Not a soul. Maybe we could place a want ad in the Star-Democrat.”
“We already tried that. Not one guy who answered the ad even had an engineering background, let alone a degree.”
“Can’t say I’m surprised.”
“How about you, Max? You’d be perfect. You have the skills and you know the area.”
Max leaned back in his chair. “Yeah, but I’m getting married in a couple of months. I can’t drag Allison over there and away from her budding career. Look. Let me make a few phone calls to people over there and see if anyone might fill the bill.”
Parsons nodded. “All right Max. You’re the best chance we have right now. I don’t want to lose these jobs because we can’t find someone over there.”
Milicent Crumble was a round, middle aged lady who looked as if she had eaten something unusually sour some time ago and still hadn’t gotten over it. She dressed in black, as if in mourning, and looked at Allison the way a dowager would look at a wayward servant though her lorgnette glasses.
“Miss…Ridgley is it? Well, Miss Winslow, Mr. Tully seems to think that your writing is somehow needed on the Society Page, that it will ‘liven things up’. Well, the page has gotten along quite well for a very long time and I intend to see that it continues that way. You may start by writing a short piece on the Waltham/Hyde-Park wedding next week. Look in our files to see the proper format and you are to submit anything you write to me for approval.”
“I understand, Mrs. Crumble,” said Allison.
“It’s Miss Crumble.”
Of course it is, thought Allison.
Max thought it best not to mention his firm’s continuing need for an Eastern Shore engineer to Allison to avoid putting any pressure on her, so the discussion when they met for dinner several days later was focused on Allison’s new responsibilities.
“I’m confused,” said Max. “Is this a promotion or a punishment?”
“If I were the suspicious type,” said Allison, “I’d be tempted to wonder if it has anything to do with the new reporter they just hired; the one who’s the publisher’s nephew. He’ll be doing the stories I used to do while I chase snooty society people and try to make them sound fascinating.”
“Well, maybe it won’t be so bad,” said Max. “A lot of them got to be society people by accomplishing things.”
“Not the ones I talk to. Mrs. Fanny Hyde-Park’s sole accomplishment seems to have been persuading Mr. Hyde-Park to marry her. I interviewed her about her daughter’s upcoming wedding and the boredom in the room was palpable. She went over every arrangement, every decoration, every scrap of food they were planning, while her daughter sat there glassy-eyed. Then the daughter took out a book of invitations and showed the subtle differences in the lettering of the various styles. The tedium was so thick you could have made soup out of it.”
“But I’m sure you’ll make it sound fascinating,” said Max, reassuringly.
“If Millicent Crumble will let me. She thinks I’m an arsonist where the society page is concerned; the barbarian at the gates of Rome. I’m a threat to her cozy and boring world. I submitted the article and she took a red pencil to it and cut out everything that was the least bit interesting…and that was little enough.”
“Well, maybe she’ll get used to it in time.”
“And when Mr. Tully sees that the Society Page is still boring, I’ll get the blame! Oh, Max, I’m thinking of looking for work at the Baltimore American, or the Baltimore News, but they’re much smaller operations and they don’t hire much.”
“So what do you plan to do?”
“I’m going to stick with it as long as my sanity will let me. I’m not quitting unless I have something better.”
Plans for Max and Allison’s wedding, meanwhile, were going along, with a relatively modest ceremony planned for the spring. With her exposure to the overwrought wedding plans of society luminaries, Allison decided to leave the details to her mother and Max’s mother. She decided to use her mother’s wedding dress to both simplify things and make her mother happy. Besides, she had her hands full with her faltering career in journalism. One day, after a grueling morning interviewing Mrs G. Worthington Tugwell, who just returned from a two month tour of Europe without, apparently, encountering any actual Europeans, Allison was near the loading docks where the papers were shipped. This was something some of the writers did to get a preview of how their articles looked in print. As she looked through a copy, she noticed another writer doing the same thing. He was in his shirt sleeeves, rumpled, and chewing on a cigar.
“Excuse me, aren’t you H.L. Mencken?”
The man didn’t look up. “Yeah, that’s right.”
“I really admire your columns. I think they’re great.”
He glanced sideways at her and noticed she was holding a paper as well.
“You a reporter?”
“Sort of. I write for the Society Page. They just shifted me over. I wrote the article about mustering out before that.”
Mencken nodded. “That was a pretty good article. But they moved you?”
“They said people wanted happy news,” said Allison.
“People are boobs, and the ones that aren’t are idiots. And you want to write real articles. Is that it?”
“I sure do,” said Allison, noticing her eyes were watering from the cigar smoke.
Mencken folded the paper he had been reading and looked directly at Allison.
“As long as you’re an employee, you’ll have to do what the Yahoos tell you. You want to write something worthwhile? Then write it and sell it. As long as you have to ask permission to write, the answer will always be no.”
Before Allison could reply, he was gone.
In early February of 1920, Uncle Bingo packed up and moved to California just as he said. A few days later, his attorney contacted Max and asked if he could come to Easton in two weeks to a settlement to transfer ownership. Max said he would be there. That night, he met Allison at the Belvedere Hotel.
“Well, it looks like we have to make up our minds what to do with it, Max.”
“There’s nothing to make up. We’ll have to sell it.”
“Look,” said Allison. “Bingo is your relative, so it has to be your decision, but it seems a shame.”
“Well, it is a shame, but what choice do we have?”
“How long do we have to decide?”
“Once title passes, we’ll be responsible for upkeep, seeing that the pipes don’t freeze, and all the joys of home ownership. Oh, the attorney said that he has a letter of intent from Uncle Bingo, so if we want to wait to pass title until after the wedding, the place could be in both of our names.”
“Uncle Bingo thinks of everything. Well, I suppose there’s no harm in waiting a few months. If that’s what you want to do.”
“That’s what I want to do.”
Allison picked at her food discontentedly. “I don’t know, Max. Sometimes I wonder. We’re giving up a great house just so I can hang on to a job that seems to get worse by the day. And for what; the chance to write about debutant shindigs and upper crust engagements?”
“Look,” said Max in his “reasonable” voice. “You’re getting paid to write. Sure, it’s not what you want exactly, but you have talent. Someday it’ll be recognized.”
“Maybe,” said Allison, but she didn’t sound convinced.
When Max returned to his office, he looked at a map of the Eastern Shore, savoring the names of places he had known growing up. He looked at the scattered road network and wondered what it would be like to have a hand in modernizing it. Bingo’s house in St Michaels was almost in the center of it.
“I know every mile of those roads; the ones that are too narrow and the ones that are too roundabout. I know where they need bridges and where they don’t . I could help straighten out the entire area.”
With a sigh, he folded the map back up and put it on a shelf.
“Second thoughts, Max?” Jake Parson had noticed Max looking at the map.
“Just keeping up with things, Jake. I expect to be involved one way or another.”
“Well, you could be the man on the spot if you change your mind.”
“I know. Thanks, Jake.”
As Allison stood uneasily in front of her desk, Millicent Crumble looked over Allison’s latest society article. As usual, she was frowning and shaking her head.
“Miss Winslow, this article on the Fleishmann wedding is unacceptable. We can’t print this.”
“But Miss Crunble, the format is exactly what you said you wanted on a society wedding. The wedding itself was a model of decorum and good taste.”
“The Fleishmanns,” said Miss Crumble coldly, “are not society.”
“The Fleishmanns own the biggest department store in Baltimore. Mr. Fleishmann gave a lot of money to the symphony and the zoo. If they aren’t society, who is?”
“For heaven’s sake, Miss Winslow, can you be this dense? The Fleishmanns are Jewish!”
“That is correct. They have money, but no breeding.”
“Are we writing about cows now? ”
“None of your insolence, young lady,” Miss Crumble hissed, tearing the page in half. “Now you go and cover what you’re supposed to cover.”
Allison bit her lip to keep from saying something she might regret. Later, she went to see Mr. Tully. He nodded politely, then lit a cigarette thoughtfully.
“Allison, you have the makings of a good writer, but you have to pay your dues.”
“My dues? What do you mean?”
“Just about everyone here started out in lowly assignments, usually the obituaries. At least you skipped that. You work your way up.”
“But, Mr. Tully, you don’t improve your writing by putting it in a straight jacket. Besides, I was already writing feature articles.”
Tully frowned, then squashed his cigarette out in an overused ashtray. “Look, Allison, I’ll level with you. You did pretty good on the articles I gave you, but that was just a fill in. We had to take up the slack until we could replace Ted Tarkington. Well, now we have.”
“And it never occurred to you that I could be his replacement?” said Allison.
“Allison, Ted had 30 years on this paper. He worked his way up from the print room, through the obituaries, through the high school sports and the petty crime stories. He paid his dues. We replaced him with a guy that’s been working local news for five years.”
“And who is the publisher’s nephew,” Allison reminded him.
“Well, he can’t help that.”
“Neither can I.”
“Anyway, you’ve been here less than two years.”
“And I’m not a man,” said Allison, crossing her arms.
Tully looked pained. “Aw, geez, Allison. Don’t pull that Suffragette stuff; you’re too good for that. You stick with it and your turn will come. I know some guys won’t hire a woman because they figure a man needs to support a family at home, but I want results and I don’t care where I get ’em.”
“So I get to pay my dues by writing up non-Jewish weddings,” said Allison, in a resentful tone of voice.
Tully’s voice softened and he leaned across the desk. “Look, Allison, you may not realize it, but I took a chance just giving you those assignments temporarily. I got some static about it, but I saw your potential and I wanted you to get the experience. That way, when the time comes, you’ll be that much better prepared. You’ll have experience.”
“I think I’m getting experience right now,” said Allison.
At the end of a very long day, Allison took the streetcar home and trudged up to the front door feeling defeated and hopeless. The house was empty. She remembered that her parents were going out to a faculty dinner that night. She put her hat on the hall hat rack, and flopped down on a chair in the parlor. There was no sound but the ticking of the mantle clock and an occasional automobile passing by outside. She was as weary as she could ever remember being.
“H.L. Mencken said to write independently,” she said out loud. “That’s easy for him to say. He’s the ‘Sage of Baltimore’. I’m just the ‘Society Scribbler of Roland Park’.”
She started at the cold fireplace idly and closed her eyes. With the release from the cares of the day, she fell asleep.
When she awoke, the room was getting darker, so she switched on the light on the end table next to her. On the table under the light, she noticed the day’s mail, a small stack of letters for her father, no doubt. She picked them up and looked through the envelopes with no real interest. The same old stuff. Everyone had a settled and stable life but her it seemed.
She stopped. One of the envelopes had an unfamiliar return address; Today’s Woman Magazine.
“Ah, another rejection to keep my record intact,” she said quietly. “The perfect end to the perfect day.”
She opened the envelope and found a folded letter inside. When she unfolded the letter, a smaller piece of paper dropped out and fluttered to the floor.
Startled, Allison read the letter.
Dear Miss Winslow:
Today’s Woman Magazine is very pleased with your article “The Home Front” and will feature it in our next issue. Please provide a few biographical details we can include in our “About the author” section, and a photograph if possible. We will be very happy to read any similar articles you care to submit. Your writing style and insights are a perfect match for our magazine.
After reading the letter three times, Allison picked up the check from the floor and looked at it.
“Jeepers,” was all she could say. “I don’t make that much in a week.”
She read the letter again and reached for the telephone.
“Oh, hey Allison. How are…”
“Are you still interested in working on the Eastern Shore?”
“The Eastern Shore? Well, sure I am, but….”
“Then pack your bags, my dear. We’re going to live Uncle Bingo’s house.”
DON’T MISS PART 8-THE MOVE-1920