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Authors: Emily Hahn

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BOOK: Francie Comes Home
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“I don't know,” said Aunt Norah. “I don't pretend to understand that kind of thing. All I know is, Florence ran into very bad trouble. Maybe she wasn't wise in picking out her stock.… Or maybe she made mistakes in her judgment of salesmen. But she weathered it, some way or other; and the point of all this, Francie, is that she needs an assistant now. She was talking to Biddy about it only the other day—she'd like a young woman with a nice background, and they're not so easy to find, she says, because when a girl grows up in Jefferson, it seems like she either goes right away or gets married and stays home.”

“Sounds all right,” Francie admitted. “Did Biddy mention me?”

“Might have,” said Aunt Norah. “You know how Biddy is. But if I were you, I'd call up Florence Ryan and make an appointment. The sooner, the better.”

“All right, Aunt Norah,” said Francie.

Calmly she walked out of the room toward the telephone. She didn't want them to see how she felt. They had guessed that she wasn't happy, but even so it would have been unkind to let them know with what boundless relief she was greeting the suggestion of change.

The years evaporated; she might have been in her childhood again, Francie thought as she brushed her hair and got ready for her date with Glenn. In just such a way she had run up the steps, long ago, and changed her clothes, and felt gay at the prospect of an evening's drive. But it wasn't the same really. Downstairs, Pop was killing time over his newspaper; he hadn't had time to kill in the old days. And she herself had aged, Francie thought sadly; she bent forward to examine her face closely in the glass for signs of encroaching Time. No, she wasn't exactly wrinkled, not yet. But there was no doubt that her face wasn't as soft and round as it had been at seventeen.

“I've set,” she decided. “You can see my bones now. I wonder if Glenn will think it's an improvement?”

For the first time since leaving New York she began playing a game that had always been a favorite with her, pulling her hair around experimentally and looking at herself sideways with a hand mirror to try for a new effect. She was fussy about her clothes, too: she tried on and discarded two or three dresses and worked her way through a lot of shoes before making a choice. It felt wonderful to be caring about such things again. And all this just for Glenn, who used to be around, always, too often taken for granted.

She was nervous when she went to meet him at the door, though there was no reason to be. It was just a date with an old boy friend, wasn't it? A boy friend who was home on a visit—home from the great world like herself. There he stood, not so different after all; a little taller and thinner, a little surer of himself in the way he moved and talked, with a stronger line around the lower bones of the face. He gave her the same kind of quick appraisal. They stood in the hall facing each other until she laughed.

“Well?” she said. “What's the verdict?”

“Well!” said Glenn. “You'll do, I guess.” He went on looking, as if he could have said more but didn't want to. It was somewhat reassuring: she wasn't quite an old hag, then. “Your Pop in there?” asked. Glenn, nodding toward the living room. “I'll just go in and say hello, shall I?”

Then they were out in the car on their way to the movies. In spite of reflecting that she was simply being sentimental, Francie was moved. It was all so exactly the way it used to be! Or, at least, as nearly like as you can expect an ordinary American town to be, considering the years that had passed. Main Street wasn't quite the same; no Main Street is year after year. There were new buildings; they were changes. And the movies weren't quite the same now; they had Cinemascope. In fact, little by little as the evening went on, the ghosts of yesteryear stopped bothering her. She wasn't the belle of high school any more, after all: she was Francie Nelson, just about to start on her first paying job, if tomorrow's interview went well. As for Glenn, he wasn't a child either; he was quite a guy—nice-looking. He'd have made a good impression on her crowd in New York, she decided, and for Francie that was praise indeed.

They stopped in at a new lunch bar for coffee and sandwiches afterwards. Talk went well enough for a little while; they had much to catch up on. But when they had compared their experiences since they'd last exchanged letters, and gone over the names of their friends, and when Francie's account of Ruth and the tea parties had made him laugh, the conversation lagged. Glenn looked absent-minded. Then he asked abruptly, “Francie, where do you go from here?”

“Nowhere,” said Francie. She tried to keep a note of self-pity from her voice. “I'm right here in Jefferson, and I'm staying. It's because of Aunt Norah and Pop, you see.”

Glenn looked thoughtful. “You don't like the prospect, do you?” he asked.

“No. Not really. But there's no way out that I can see.”

He said, “That's tough on you, especially.”

“Well,” said Francie, “it can't be helped, and I don't intend to be tragic about it. There are lots of things about Jefferson I like, anyway, and I guess it was time I got to find them out.” Embarrassed and afraid that she might sound like a Brave Little Woman, she picked up her bag and slipped off the high stool. Glenn picked up the check stub and followed her. He paid and handed her into the car, all in silence, and when he drove off toward the North Road instead of heading for her home, she said nothing. They had often taken this same drive in the old days before ending the evening. He pulled up in the old parking place: this, at least, hadn't yet been changed. It was still well wooded and very quiet.

Inevitably she began remembering again. Glenn had kissed her years ago in this spot. He was—surely he was the first boy who had kissed her? They said you never forgot a thing like that, but she had: she wasn't quite sure. Of one thing, however, she
was
sure: she was certainly the first girl he had kissed, because he'd done it awkwardly, shooting out his head so suddenly and desperately that they had bumped teeth. She smiled.

“What's so funny?” asked Glenn.

She was about to answer somehow, without telling the truth, when he put his arm around her shoulders, gathered her in, and kissed her thoroughly. This time there was no awkwardness about his embrace. She was breathless when he let her go; he wanted to keep his arm around her, and she rather wanted to stay there, cuddled down against his shoulder, but it didn't seem right. They couldn't just start necking as if there hadn't been any interruption, she felt.

So she pushed away and sat upright, her fingers against her cheeks, which felt warm and pink. She didn't say anything, because if she did it would sound silly—something like, “Why, Glenn, this is so sudden!”

“I wish things were happier for you,” said Glenn, without referring to the kiss. “I don't like to go back West thinking of you stuck here. I know how you've always loved to travel and—well, all that.”

She said, “Oh, but I haven't. Don't you remember, I raised an awful fuss when Pop first took me away from Jefferson High?”

No, Glenn said, he didn't remember that. “The way it seemed to me, you were always raring to go.” He paused. “Things might be different now if you'd stayed.” He looked at her a long time. “But the rest of us sort of stood on the platform and watched the express rush by.”

“Oh Glenn, what nonsense!” But she was pleased by the picture.

“Or maybe you were more like a comet,” he said. “A shooting star. Look, it's there! Look, it's gone! I thought of you like that, you know—romantic, a kind of a baby star.”

“Oh dear,” said Francie. “What must you think of me now?” She was sobered. He would be on his way back to San Francisco in a few days with only a gentle kind of pity for her, and she did so hate to be pitied!

Glenn said, “I haven't changed, Francie. Come to think of it, I'm just mean enough to like the idea of the comet being caught. A star tied down, right in my home town. What could be sweeter?” He was teasing, she knew, but the words were good to hear, and when he reached out and embraced her again, she relaxed. It didn't seem strange any more. It seemed natural.

CHAPTER 5

Outside the Birthday Box window Francie paused and stared critically at the objects on the other side of the glass. Beyond them in the dimness she saw Mrs. Ryan talking to a customer or friend; she would wait, she decided, until the place was empty. To fill in time she enumerated the things nearest her. A greeting card depicting an elephant in bed with a thermometer in his mouth; the message was “Hurry 'n get UP!!” A black-and-white cocktail shaker surrounded by its family of six little glasses, all decorated with poodles. A large plastic doily made to look like Irish crocket on linen. Three carved wooden dolls, attractively dressed. Lots and lots of china—bowls, small dogs, big dogs, tiles with cats painted on them, and figurines. The window was crowded, and not very well arranged. If she were to work there, would Mrs. Ryan let her do something about it?

The lady talking to Mrs. Ryan came out at last, smiling. Francie braced herself and walked in. She was wondering how to open the conversation when Mrs. Ryan recognized her and started off herself.

“My dear! Thank goodness you've turned up. I wondered all morning if you really would. ‘No, I don't suppose she will, never in the world,' I thought, ‘because why should a young lady with everything exciting to do with her life—' Anyway you've come. How soon do you think? Of course there's so much to talk about, and I don't want to put your aunt to any inconvenience, she's such a darling, such a good friend, such a real person, isn't she? I just adore your aunt.”

“Aunt Norah says it's no inconvenience at all, Mrs. Ryan.” Francie felt somewhat breathless. If this was job-hunting, its trials were vastly exaggerated.

While they talked, or rather while Mrs. Ryan talked in her peculiar ejaculatory style, Francie took a look at her. She had never really noticed Mrs. Ryan when she had bought her earrings or paid other business visits to the place. She now saw a little woman who moved in sudden sharp swoops, in the same way that she talked; her gray hair was done up in snails over her ears and her eyes were magnified by thick-lensed harlequin glasses so that she looked permanently startled. Her gray tailored suit was too pale in color and it cut her across the back in the widest place, just where it shouldn't have. There was nothing glamorous about Mrs. Ryan, but she was pleasant-looking, and certainly it warmed Francie's heart to feel welcomed.

They arranged such matters as salary and hours, and because Mrs. Ryan looked wistful without quite asking her to do it, Francie offered to start work then and there. After all, why not? No doubt Aunt Norah had already done whatever there was to do around the house.

“We'll start right in showing you the stock and the price list,” said Mrs. Ryan eagerly, “and if any customers come in, you can watch me until you catch on. You've never worked in a shop, have you? Neither had I when I first started this one.”

“It was awfully brave of you,” said Francie.

“Do you think so?” Mrs. Ryan looked gratified. “I don't know, really—I wasn't at all afraid. I didn't know enough about the business to
be
afraid, to tell you the truth; I didn't have sense to know what I was getting into. Oh, my land, those first few months! I'll never again believe a success story, no, not even if I read it in
Fortune
. The things a girl can run into! Excuse me, dear, I think I feel a nibble.” Her voice sank dramatically, and Francie held her breath in sympathy, for there were two women outside pointing to something and talking in ostentatious admiration to each other. Francie swiveled her eyes around to see what it was: a novelty cocktail apron, evidently, the sort that has a funny picture on it.

“That one on the right—Betty Smedley—regular customer,” muttered Mrs. Ryan, hardly moving her lips.

The ladies chattered a minute, walked toward the door, stopped and chattered some more, and finally let themselves in. They were dressed in something expensive in fur, and they smelled good, and they greeted Mrs. Ryan with cheerful, friendly hails like the old friends they were.

“That cute little old apron, Flo,” said the one named Mrs. Smedley. “Honestly, you get the cutest things in! Can I have it?”

“Sure,” said Mrs. Ryan. “What is it now, another party?”

“Barbecue for my sister-in-law. Got anything else that might make it go?” asked Mrs. Smedley. She was moving restlessly around the shop, opening boxes and peering behind the counter. “Something everybody else hasn't got,” she added. “I like to be original.”

“You always are,” said her friend. “You give awfully original parties.… What's this, Florence?” She held up a small gadget of some sort and stared over it at Francie, who stood in the corner self-effacingly.

Between them the ladies bought a large number of trifles—paper napkins and tablecloth, a few greeting cards and some bottle labels. They egged each other on to make purchases. The shop rang with their pretty squeals and giggles. They spent nearly an hour there.

“How much did all that amount to?” asked Francie curiously when at last they had gone and Mrs. Ryan was entering the transactions in a book.

“Six dollars and fifty-five cents,” said Mrs. Ryan. “They never buy much at one shot, but Betty's a good, steady customer and she spreads the word.”

Francie said, “But I saw a few people kind of hesitating outside the window. They might have come in if “the place hadn't been so crowded.”

“It can't be helped,” said Mrs. Ryan. “If you don't make your friends welcome, half the fun of shopping's gone, and they'll go somewhere else next time. Friendliness is a very important thing in the gift-shop business, Francie. If you're not a friendly person to begin with, it would be better to go in for something else. I don't mean you personally; I'm talking about the whole thing. Now then, are you ready to see the stock while we have a few minutes free?”

BOOK: Francie Comes Home
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