March 31, 2011
Book Review & Excerpt
Wings: A Novel of World War II Flygirls
by Karl Friedrich
Review by Carys Bowen
Sally Ketchum, the young heroine of Karl Friedrich’s fine debut novel, Wings: A Novel of World War II Flygirls, has a lot to overcome. By the end of the first chapter the list is short and painful: an abusive, deprived, motherless childhood on a farm in East Texas, and the endless heartache of losing her true love in a blazing plane crash which she survives.
Though Friedrich’s taut, descriptive style is evocative and often romantic, this is not a romance novel. This story of a woman determined to have the life she desires at nearly any cost, piloting airplanes in the 1940s as a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), is gritty, sometimes gruesome and often very moving.
WASPs were civilian employees whose job was to move aircraft during WW II, freeing male pilots for battle. The history of the WASP program, along with technical information about flying various airplanes of the period, is woven into the narrative with the excellent result of bringing an immediacy to this story based nearly 70 years ago in West Texas.
Sally’s true love, Tex Jones, had swept into her life a few years before, removed her from her father’s bitter grasp and taught her to fly a Jenny. Jennys were biplanes used for barnstorming, the business of flying from tiny town to tiny town across America, sleeping at night in a field by the plane and selling rides each day to the locals. She became a deft, confident pilot. Tex dies in a mid-air collision with turkey buzzards a short time after they find each other.
A few months later Sally takes a train to Sweetwater, Texas, at the invitation of the War Department, to become a WASP. A broken, suspicious, self-pitying satchel of sorrow, en route she meets the beautiful, confident and very funny model/pilot Dixie Ray Beaumont, also headed to WASP school.
Sally is an appealing and sympathetic character but when Dixie arrives in Friedrich’s story, full of pitiless, wise-ass advice and wild stories, I was completely hooked. They become uneasy friends, and Sally’s life is immediately blown wide open by the realities of fighting her own self-doubt and the inherent sexism of the era to win her WASP wings.
Let me also say two words that appear early in Wings, pop up often to torment Sally, and provide terrific drama throughout: Ira Waterman. Waterman is as evil a nemesis as any hero or heroine ever had. But, like any nemesis, he has his own reasons. He’s been charged with shutting down the WASP and is ruthless and relentless in his efforts.
Wings is a story of hard-won redemption (in saying that I am not revealing Sally’s fate), a coming of age tale filled with some laugh-out-loud situations and real mystery. The characters as revealed by their behavior and words are distinct, memorable and crucial to the outcome of Sally’s life. Overbearing Army supervisors and an array of WASP wanna-bes of every type as well as tough critics who transform into staunch Sally-supporters provide a solid, absorbing story that I found hard to put down and which I carry with me still.
I hope that Karl Friedrich’s working on the story of the rest of Sally Ketchum’s life because I want and need to know where she lands and how she’s doing.
Wings, A Novel of World War II Flygirls is available beginning April 1st in bookstores and online. Published by McBooks in hardcover, it can be downloaded to digital readers as well.
April 7, 2011
Last week former FOCUS columnist Karl Friedrich’s new book, Wings: A Novel of World War II Flygirls, was favorably reviewed in FOCUS. Below begins an excerpt from the book, published by McBooks Press in hardcover.
A Sally Ketchum peered over the edge of the cockpit.
They were over Oklahoma by now. Or maybe it was still Texas down there. There was no way to tell, really . . . the pitifully dried-out browns of one were pretty much identical to the other. But the truth was that she didn’t care where they were, exactly. And she was pretty sure that Tex didn’t, either. Texas was behind them, or soon would be. Oklahoma was beneath them, or soon would be. And soon up ahead was sure to be a town that was near a field of adequate width and flatness and emptiness to set the Jenny down safely.
Once the wings and tail were staked and the big cloth sign hung beside the nearest road to announce their intentions, they’d make a fire to heat their beans and water for coffee, and break out what was left of the makings for sandwiches. Then they’d crawl beneath the Jenny’s wide old cloth wings and into each other’s arms and drift off to sleep beneath a blanket of a billion stars. Come sunrise, word would have spread like wildfire that an airplane had landed in so-and-so’s field, its two occupants intending to sell rides to whomever was adequately rich in spirit and free with dollars for a once-in-a-lifetime, bird’s-eye view of the world.
She leaned back. The hurricane force of the propeller and the blast of gases from the engine’s exhaust instantly lessened, thanks to the little cocoon of relative protection provided by the wooden cockpit and the small windscreen that jutted from the fuselage a few inches forward of her head. Farther forward, just behind the howl of the engine and even more directly in the path of the sheen of engine oil that accompanied the howl, was an identical cockpit and within it, Tex. She could plainly see the top of his shoulders and neck, and the canvas flying helmet and goggles on his head that were like her own. She couldn’t see his face, but she knew from experience that it would be even grittier than hers. Despite a hard and not-so-profitable day of giving rides in Texas, he had insisted that she take the more comfortable rear cockpit, the one from which the Jenny typically was flown. She’d had a twinge of guilt but still had jumped at the chance. Next to Tex, flying had become the most important thing in her life.
It had been six months since Tex introduced her to the good things that lay beyond the huge East Texas piney woods that circled her daddy’s poor dirt farm. The farm and her daddy’s drinking and ranting had been her suffocating hell for eighteen years. Then Tex had dropped out of the sky one morning on his way to nowhere in particular, and after they’d talked for a while like two people who’d known each other all their lives, she’d climbed aboard the Jenny and flown off with him. Just like that, she’d gone from breathing but being dead, to loving life as much as rock candy. Tex had even insisted she get her pilot’s license so she could share equally in the flying from one county fair to the next and to the hick towns in between. He’d become the only person she’d ever loved, the only person she’d ever felt completely at ease with, the only one who’d ever understood her, and her only try at completely trusting someone other than herself. The experiment had paid off bigger than the electric light bulb.
She pushed her foot against the left rudder pedal and shoved the control stick in the same direction. A slight crosswind was causing the Jenny to drift off course. Or more probably, the rigging—the wires and pulleys that allowed the plane to climb and to turn and dive—needed adjusting again. Or maybe the old plane’s guts were just exhausted from a quarter-century of impolite flying. This Jenny and a thousand more like it had been built more than twenty years earlier to train pilots for the First World War. Those not reduced to kindling in the hands of bad students or by bad luck had eventually been sold to everyone from former military pilots to farmer wanna-be pilots. The fact that this one still was in one piece was a near-miracle. But in Tex’s hands, and increasingly in her own, the ancient relic performed like a ballerina, albeit one of advanced years and with more than a touch of arthritis.
The browns two thousand feet below were darkening. It would be nighttime soon. They would need to land while there was still enough light to see what they were doing.
Tex had reached the same decision. They could almost read each other’s minds now, which was handy as noise from the engine and the distance between the cockpits made conversation impossible. He lifted his hand to his forehead as if shading his eyes and moved his head from side to side in an exaggerated movement, and then looked back to see if she understood.
She nodded quickly. She was already looking for a town, or at least a clump of civilization. Without instruments to guide them, they navigated by railroad tracks that inevitably lead to a town. Or when they could get them, they used automobile road maps. But this evening there were no steel rails, nor any maps. All that she could see in all directions were miles and miles of brown, broken occasionally by the glint of a solitary farmhouse. The unfurling of their sign would have to wait. They would be spending tonight alone, with nothing but the stars and maybe the distant howl of a coyote for company. She smiled greedily. She doubted that even the angels were in for such happiness.
She again moved the rudder and control stick. This time she used considerable force. The Jenny’s engine was underpowered even on the rare days when it was running at its full potential. Huge amounts of stick and rudder were necessary for just a little change in direction. Finally she let the old plane lazily right itself. A flat spot of ground lay directly ahead. She began working the throttle toward her. The sound of the engine instantly dipped. Tex extended his thumb above his head, signaling his approval. Her grin deepened, and she didn’t even notice her chapped lips.
The air around them was unnaturally calm, as if some invisible hand were protecting them from the ordinary turbulence that so often lingered during the blistering days of August.
She played the landing in her mind’s eye: The big wire-spoke wheels brushing spots of burnt grass. The tires kissing the brown underneath, raising little trails of dust. The wheels, unfettered by any brakes, rolling roughly for a few moments and then coming to a stop.
Her feet and hands continuously adjusted the Jenny’s path through the air. Her smile exploded. She was born for this, just as she was born to be with Tex. She had become more than herself. She and the Jenny and Tex and the world had become one.
Suddenly something fluttered in the gloom ahead. Two enormous black shapes rose from the ground, their wings flapping mightily in the listless air. As if intent on murder and then suicide, they hung in the very spot where the Jenny was pointed.
Her left hand slammed the throttle forward. Her right pulled back on the stick as much as she dared while her brain fought to sense the stall that would send them crashing like a brick into the ground. But just then Tex wrestled the controls from her. In a dangerously calculated move, he was turning the plane to the right and lowering the nose to gain airspeed.
She felt the plane teeter. She held her breath.
But it wasn’t enough. One turkey buzzard hit the prop dead-on. The engine screamed and the old airframe started shaking itself to pieces as the propeller shattered. The second bird struck the upper wing on the right side. She sensed more than heard the ancient wood and fabric splinter and rip apart. Even Tex couldn’t save them then.
The Jenny met the ground head-on. The hot engine drove backward into the fragile gas tank; the impact threw her clear of the fireball.
She lay on the ground and watched the flames consume the cockpits. And she screamed and screamed, as all that she loved vanished forever from the universe.
“Say, hon . . . have ya got your feet planted across this whole seat because you’re afraid somethin’s gonna skitter up your skirt? Or are you hoggin’ more than your fair share of the room just to be ornery??”
Sally opened her eyes. At first she was confused over where she was; then she recognized the railroad car. She had boarded late in the afternoon and finally had fallen asleep. Now a slash of hard morning light streamed through the windows. Nicks and scrapes left by the passing of countless riders, invisible before, stood out on the seat back in front of her.
The seat padding did nothing to stop the jolts and jars of the wheels, and there really wasn’t enough room to get comfortable, anyway. She worked herself into a sitting position, being careful of the crick in her neck.
The stranger staring down at her from the aisle was five-foot-eight, maybe even five-nine, and voluptuous. Not a wrinkle marred her tailored yellow suit or a speck of dirt her matching heels. Her thick black hair was so well combed, her lips so perfectly painted, that she might have stepped out of a magazine. Without waiting for an invitation, and with a grace that seemed impossible, she slid onto the seat and stuck out her hand. Her grin was an ear-to-ear thing, her voice a bit too powerful for the earliness of the hour.
“Dixie Ray Beaumont.” All of the parts of her face moved when she spoke, as if each was vying to out-express the other. The result was an intoxicating brew of novelty and beauty.
“Sally Ketchum.” She met the hand with her own.
“Happy to meet ya, honey.”
Some flaw sensed only by Dixie’s tongue set off a warning, and she reached into her purse to retrieve a lipstick and mirror. She banished the defect with a single stroke, then went on to check her hair with a pat and a shove.
Sally felt self-conscious. A fever blister was sprouting on her lip. She pressed her mouth together to conceal the spot. She started to check her hair but stopped. Compared to Dixie’s, her own shag was too short and shapeless, her hands too rough, too cracked, too swollen from farm chores to be put on display, and she slipped them into the folds of her dress. The dress was the best one she owned, but it had been washed so many times that the sleeves were coming apart.
Dixie returned her tools to her purse and snapped the sides closed with a click and smiled. “Where you headed?”
“Sweetwater.” Sally locked her arms against her sides to hide her arm pits.
“Sweetwater?” Dixie’s expressions scampered. “Why . . . that’s where I’m goin’! I’m gonna be a WASP. That’s short for Women Airforce Service Pilots. What’s your business there?”
Sally felt a rush of elation. “Me, too! That’s why I’m going, too!”
A look of disbelief came over Dixie.
Sally felt her excitement vanish over meeting this fellow pilot, the first she’d ever known who was a woman. Not that she could blame Dixie. But for the letter of invitation in her pocket from the War Department, she wouldn’t have believed that the army wanted her to fly their airplanes, -either.
Tex had been dead for three years now. She’d had no place to go to but back to the farm and her daddy. His drinking had worsened, as had his prophesies about her eternal doom, delivered more frequently with the broadside of his belt; he’d never let her forget what she’d done with Tex, and he’d belittled her right up until he’d died. That had been two days ago. She’d gone into the kitchen and found him where he’d fallen down drunk and hit his head. Soon thereafter, she’d discovered the War Department’s response to her while sorting through what little he’d left that didn’t belong to the bank. He’d kept it hidden from her for a month, even though he knew she’d slaved for days over her letter to the army asking to join the WASP. He’d hated her for running off with Tex. But he’d hated her even more after seeing that the army wanted her, because he would be losing control of her for good.
Dixie was studying her. The nightmare that Sally had told herself wouldn’t happen already had. WASP were sure to be rich and look like Dixie, something she had conveniently ignored in her fantasies about flying for the army. Only the rich could afford pilot training and all the costs that went with flying. Tex had liked to say that a rich man could learn real quick how the other half lived just by taking up aviation for a week. If she hadn’t met him, she never would have gotten close to an airplane, much less gotten her pilot’s license. Learning to fly had been a fluke, just like her invitation from the army. Dixie was what the WASP were looking for. Dixie had the looks that sold newspapers.
Dixie cleared her throat, as if she were an adult about to correct a child for doing something embarrassing in public. “You do know, don’t you, honey, that you have to already be a pilot for ’em to take you? You can’t just show up. You have to be invited, which means you have to already have your license.”
“I have my license!” Sally did her best to control her voice.
“I mean your pilot’s license,” Dixie insisted. “You have to already be a qualified, licensed pilot before you can get into the WASP. It’s not like bein’ a man. They won’t go to the bother of trainin’ you unless you already know how to fly and have all the paperwork to prove it.” Dixie’s eyes were the color of the sky on a spring morning when the clouds don’t show up, the kind of eyes that look through lead; and just then they were looking through Sally and over her. She might as well have been a plate glass window, for all the secrets she was hiding from Dixie.
Dixie’s voice dropped a notch. “How much air time do ya have, honey??” Sally sensed that Dixie was trying hard to be kindly.
Her humiliation was complete. She already looked like a rag-a-muffin, and now Dixie was about to know that she was little more than a student pilot. The War Department had made a cruel mistake; certainly she had no right trying out for the WASP. She might as well get off the train at the next station.
“Two or three hundred hours,” she said softly.
Dixie’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t mean how long it feels like you’ve been ridin’ on this-here train! What I meant was, how many flyin’ hours do you have, with you bein’ the pilot of the airplane?”
A knot of anger gripped Sally. She was allowing herself to become a victim. That was something she’d promised herself she would never be again. Her father had been a victim. She’d been a victim, too, until she met Tex. Pretty much everyone she’d known growing up had been a victim, if not of ignorance then of isolation and poverty. Men killed themselves plowing and picking cotton for what amounted to a bare living. Women grew old early by working the house and often the fields, too—all the while punching out child after child—until those women became worn as trampled hay. Tex had shown her that she could rise above her beginnings, but first she had to learn not to be swayed by those around her into remaining like them. She had to believe in herself, too. And she had to be tough. That part had come easily, thanks to her daddy. He’d taught her strength and tenacity. His suffocating domination and narrow-mindedness would otherwise have crushed her years ago.
She looked Dixie squarely in the eye. “I told you . . . I have two or three hundred hours.”
The last trace of fun tightened out of Dixie’s face. “I hope you’ll forgive me, hon, but you wouldn’t be my first pick from a crowd of strangers to be a pilot.”
She didn’t care if Dixie had a thousand hours of flying time, and money to burn. She wasn’t going to let anyone call her a liar. “And you wouldn’t be my first, nor for that matter my last, pick as someone to go barnstorming with,” she snarled. “I doubt you’d last one night in a cornfield with no plumbing and a breakfast of cold beans, while you hoped and prayed for enough paying passengers before sundown to eat as well again the next morning.”
All the parts of Dixie’s face snapped to a dead stop. “You’re a barnstormer? You made money flyin’? Is that what you’re sayin’??” Her eyes bulged.
“Texas!” Sally said. “Oklahoma! Arkansas! For six months, for about three hundred hours. Yes, that’s what I’m saying. I don’t know how many hours exactly because we were too busy flying to keep count.” Her nose always ran when she lost her temper. She reached into the pocket of her dress for a handkerchief but came up empty.
An expensive piece of embroidered cloth appeared in Dixie’s hand.
Sally took the handkerchief and blew her nose, then carefully refolded the cloth.
Dixie stuffed the piece back into her bag without so much as a glance. “Are you married, honey??”
Sally turned away to the window. She wanted to be alone.
“Gum?” In the reflection of the glass, Dixie was holding out two small balls of the stuff, a rare commodity for a civilian in wartime rationing. Sally wondered where she’d gotten it.
Dixie grunted and pressed one of the things into her mouth and began to chew with great, luxurious bites that brought a look of sugary satisfaction to her face. “Who’s the other part of the ‘we’??”
“My boyfriend.” The scenery passed without Sally seeing it.
Growing restless with the silence, Dixie prodded, “So, you got three hundred hours? I’ve got thirty-six.”
Sally whipped around. “You have thirty-six hundred flight hours?”
Dixie snickered. “No! Thirty-six!” She retrieved two pieces of paper from her handbag. Sally immediately recognized one like her own. It had come from Jacqueline Cochran, director of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, and invited Dixie to train at a flying school in Sweetwater for a period of six months to qualify as a WASP ferry pilot to deliver airplanes to bases all over the United States. The director hadn’t pulled any punches. Trainees had to pay their own travel expenses to Sweetwater and, presumably, to leave should they wash out. Sally remembered the initial fear as she realized she’d have to come up with more money than she’d seen since her barnstorming days with Tex. It’d taken every penny she could find—she’d had to sell everything she could get her hands on—to buy the one-way ticket. Now she didn’t even have enough left for a cup of coffee.
Dixie was pointing to the other sheet. “Lookee right there. What does that say??”
Sally read, “Minimum flying hours required for WASP training: thirty-five.”
Dixie nodded. “Until you came along, I never heard of any woman havin’ three hundred hours, unless she was Amelia Earhart or that gal who runs the WASP, Jackie Cochran. And I sure never heard of any woman barnstormin’?.”
Sally snatched the sheet from Dixie’s fingers. Typed boldly across the top were the words, “An Overview Of Facts For Personnel Considering Entering WASP Training.” Her mouth turned dry. By mid-page, her tongue had become cotton.
“. . . train in military aircraft . . . the same number of training hours as male pilots . . . learn navigation and instrument flying . . . station at a military airfield following graduation . . . fly bombers and/or pursuit aircraft to wherever ordered within the contiguous United States . . . base pay of one hundred and fifty dollars per month during training . . . ”
Dixie grabbed the papers back. “Didn’t you get one like this?” She stuffed the papers protectively into her purse.
Sally shook her head. “I guess they forgot to put it in the envelope.”
“And you just up and quit whatever you were doin’ to climb aboard this train, without knowin’ anything about the job or how much it paid?” The insinuation was that at least one of Sally’s birth parents must have been a half-wit.
But she didn’t care what Dixie thought. She had almost ten times more flying experience than this beautiful woman. The government must be desperate if it was accepting such inexperienced pilots for training. Suddenly all of her conclusions about not being good enough to become a WASP seemed crazy, the idea of getting off the train absurd.
Clearly not satisfied with this new lag in the conversation, Dixie declared, “I’m from Dallas, myself. Where you from?”
She and Tex had flown over this land, in fact followed this same railroad track. She answered absently, “A farm in East Texas.”
Dixie took this as encouragement. “I was over in New Orleans enjoyin’ a little workin’ vacation when I got my letter,” she said. “My landlady was supposed to send me my mail, but I guess she didn’t think it was important or she forgot about it until the last minute. Anyway, I let out a whoop when I opened that envelope that I bet they heard all the way to Atlanta. Then I nearly died when I saw I hadta get to Sweetwater by today if I was gonna join up. Let me tell you, I did some serious packin’?. That cabdriver damn near ran over two little old ladies and a blind man’s dog to get me to the station on time. And I still almost didn’t make it. If that letter had come an hour later, you and I wouldn’t be havin’ this conversation, and right now I’d be gettin’ ready to squeeze my butt into a Lady Swan girdle for Pierre Valois.”
Sally’s surprise that a total stranger would share such an intimate detail must have shown, for Dixie laughed. The sound was more than a little naughty. “I’m a model, honey. It’s my job to walk around in my underwear. Pierre’s a famous photographer. He’s in all the magazines. He invited me over to vacation, and when we wasn’t busy doin’ other things, we did a little work.” She grinned slyly.
“What do you know about the WASP?” Sally asked abruptly. She didn’t want to hear any more about Pierre Valois, nor about Dixie’s personal life.
Dixie eyed her coolly. “Just what I read in the papers and what this gal I met who’d been a WASP told me.” But her annoyance quickly disappeared, and she warmed to her new subject.
“It was Jackie Cochran that sold the army on startin’ the WASP. She’s that gal that won all those air races. The army went along with the idea because it wanted to free up more men for combat by usin’ women to fly planes to wherever the army needs ’em. Except for overseas . . . men do the ferryin’ if a plane’s gotta go overseas.”
“This gal I knew—her name was Betty Lane Striplin’—said the army flew her butt off, and not just in the new stuff, either. She flew a lot of old worn-out junk that’d been in combat and was gonna be melted down. Her job was to get it to the scrap yard. And she flew target tugs. She said that was the worst. They’d make her fly back and forth over the same spot of ground down in Florida for six or seven hours at a stretch, while a bunch of trainees practiced firin’ live ammo up at this target she was pullin’ behind her on a cable. She said she kept waitin’ for a round to go through a gas tank and blow her up, but I guess it never did because she was about as alive as you can get when I knew her. By the way, the army doesn’t bother puttin’ any kind of female relief tube in its planes. I guess they expect you to either pee in your pants or stand up in the seat and hang your butt over the side of the cockpit.”
Despite Dixie’s frankness, Sally found herself hanging on her every word.
Dixie was fully wound up now, and talking a-mile-a-minute about Betty Lane Stripling. “She never knew where she’d be goin’ to next, and they only paid her half of what men get for doin’ the same kind of flyin’?, and some of the men treated her like dirt. But she got to fly just about everything the army and the navy has and she had a ball doing it, in spite of a few men who tried to keep her out of the cockpit. She even got to bump a senator off a train once because she had to get somewhere in a hurry to pick up a plane.”
“Oh, come on!” Sally was sure now that Dixie was making this up.
A look of mortal hurt crossed Dixie’s face, and she held up her hand. “I swear! That’s what she said! The army needs planes so badly that a WASP can bump anybody but the president off any plane, train, ship or bus, so long as she has orders to get somewhere in a hurry.”
“The day a politician jumps off a train because I tell him to is the day I hope somebody’s got a camera handy,” Sally said dryly, “?’cause that’s the day cows are gonna fly.”
Dixie wasn’t going to be stopped a second time from finishing a story, and she continued quickly: “I don’t know anything about any flyin’ cows. All I know is what this gal, Betty Lane Striplin’?, told me. After a while, she said she got so tired of never havin’ a day off and all the rest of it, she just quit. She’d met an officer and they got married and she settled down to have babies. That’s when I knew her. This department store I was modelin’ for sent me out with all these celebrities to help sell war bonds, and her husband was there. He’d shot down a bunch of German planes. She was pregnant as a blimp, and her feet was swoll up like pontoons. But she was holdin’ up to it and havin’ a swell time.”
“Soldiers can’t quit anytime they feel like it,” Sally said. “They’d be shot!”
Dixie studied her closely, as if she were seeing Sally for the first time. Her face tightened with concern. “You really are jumpin’ in with both feet without lookin’ first to see what you’re landin’ in, aren’t you? Honey, the WASP aren’t soldiers. They’re civilian workers. They can quit anytime they want. And accordin’ to that gal, they do. The army has a terrible time keepin’ WASP.”
Sally didn’t care whether the WASP were civilians or soldiers. Nor was she really concerned about the condition of the planes they flew. WASP got advanced training and were paid to fly; that put being a WASP head and shoulders above anything she’d done so far except barnstorm with Tex. “Not me!” she said. “I won’t quit! Any kind of flying beats anything else, any day of the week.”
Dixie assumed a knowing look. “I could have sworn a minute ago that you were mighty close to quittin’?.”
How could Dixie have read her mind? “I was not!”
Dixie gave her a long look. “OK. Just so long as your mind’s made up one way or the other. ’Cause you’re gonna look mighty strange jumpin’ off and on this train while it’s goin’ down the track.”
Sally stifled a smile. “My mind’s made up. I’m going to Sweetwater.”
“Well, so long as you’re sure.” Dixie blew a bubble. The thing grew and grew until it seemed ready to burst all over her face. But at the last minute she successfully sucked it back into her mouth.
“If I say I’m sure, then I’m sure,” Sally said stiffly.
Another bubble emerged from Dixie’s mouth, this one even grander and more dangerous; she had to tilt her head to keep the thing away from her hair. She deflated it with an expert punch of her tongue. “OK. That’s fine by me.”
The silence grew. Finally Dixie added, “I knew the truth about you the minute I saw you. It’s plain as a whump upside the head with a baseball bat.”
“What is?” Sally snapped.
Dixie looked self-satisfied. “That you’re an even worse liar than you are a dresser, which is why I know you’ve got every bit of three hundred hours. You’ve probably got a lot more, but you’re so scared of takin’ somethin’ that doesn’t belong to you that you won’t claim what’s rightfully yours.”
“You’ve got a lot of nerve!”
Dixie wiggled her rump unconcernedly. The effect was similar to a large bird settling onto a nest. She made a loud smacking sound with her gum. “Your momma or your daddy used to wallop you for fibbin’?, didn’t they?? And ever since then you’ve been livin’ like you’re still six years old and they’re hidin’ around the corner listenin’ to everything you say—which is the reason you’re in the predicament you’re in.”
“Bein’ broke and down on your luck and lonely as a soul in a grave,” Dixie answered easily.
“That’s none of your business!”
Dixie patted her hair. “You asked me. I was just answerin’?. My guess is that you were brought up livin’ by a bunch of rules instead of common sense, which don’t do you a bit of good unless everybody is playin’ by the same rules, and in my experience, they never do. The world’s full of opportunities, honey. You ought’a take a look around to see what’s where and how to put it to work for you. You gotta learn to be an Indian fighter, hon. Otherwise, you’re gonna get scalped.”
Trying to keep her voice low so the other passengers wouldn’t hear, Sally hissed, “My father went crazy on religion; he was a drunk, too; he died this week; I found him in the kitchen where he fell and hit his head. My mother died when I was born. I went to a poor country school. I’ve had one boyfriend and if he’d lived, I’d be his wife; but he didn’t, and I’m not gonna grow old and die on a dirt farm like everybody I grew up with; I’m going to make something of myself, with or without the army’s help, and nothing is going to stop me. Now you know everything about me that’s worth knowing. So you can stop your prying and your prodding and you can put away your crystal ball. I want to be left alone!”
Dixie rested her head against the seat and closed her eyes. A knowing smile tugged at her lips. She muttered, “Okee-dokee.”
Sally returned to the window. Talking about herself had brought back the nightmares. Her guilt: if her mother hadn’t died giving her life, maybe her daddy wouldn’t have gone hog-wild. And her fear: she was to blame somehow for her daddy’s failures and her mother’s death. Her parents had met when he’d joined the army and gone back east during the First World War. She knew her momma’s first name had been Jane and that her maiden name was Mason. Almost everything else about her was a mystery. She’d never even seen her picture.
She remembered as a little girl when her daddy had decided that the Devil lived in pictures, and in a rage had gone around the house gathering up and burning what few photos they owned. The memory was especially bitter now that she was gone from the farm, for she’d always hoped to stumble across something of her mother’s. She’d tried a thousand times to imagine her face and hands, and her smell as she snuggled deep into her arms. But each question about her mother had been met with her daddy’s curt rebuff. She’d accepted that when she was little. But as she grew older, she came to guess the truth. He’d left for overseas a weeks-old husband and come back to the farm a soon-to-be father. That explained his anger. He’d been ill-suited for both, and he’d blamed her for each.
Those who had known him had confided that he’d been a good man when he was young. But the war had given him the Thirst. That’s when the weakness in his character had grown. He took up religion when her mother died, but not just to trot out on Sundays or to hold close for personal comfort; he’d wrapped himself in the Word. He’d slathered himself in it. And he’d done everything he could to give Sally a full dose, too. Eventually every other word out of his mouth became “God” or “Jesus” or “sinner” or “hell ” or “fire” or “brimstone,” more often than not strung together with a prophesy of doom more terrible than the human mind could possibly contemplate. He hadn’t been an educated man, but he’d learned to scare her to death with his tongue just as well as any preacher. Still, she’d tried to love him, and so desperately tried to get him to love her back. But he’d only gotten worse and worse, and finally she’d grown ashamed of him.
She remembered her constant fear when she was little. She waited for the Devil to jump out at her, or for the ground to rip open and belch sulfur and hellfire in the final, evil moments of life on Earth, as her daddy predicted. She spent many an afternoon watching the sky for angel sign. She made up her mind that she was going to hitch a ride to heaven before the rickety old house and barn, and what there was of the rest of the farm, went straight down to hell. She worked her little fingers to the bone to make sure her spot between their comforting feathers was reserved. But no matter how hard she tried, he always found something to condemn her for. And one day when she was a young teenager, she realized that every day of her life in East Texas had pretty much been like the day -before: no Devil sightings, no angel sign, just monotony and hard work and poverty and superstition. Everything changed for her on that day. She and her daddy parted paths. She started to think for herself. Books became her constant companion in a world that was lonely and stifling but for the occasional teacher who took an interest in her.
When she was eighteen, she reached the opinion that religion gave the clever and the unscrupulous power over the desperate and the naïve; and in a moment of anger and great misjudgment, she had expressed that belief to her daddy. He’d slapped her so hard she nearly went unconscious. Then he’d fallen into a praying frenzy that had lasted the rest of the night.
Tex appeared out of nowhere the next morning. And finally, her life had begun.
The rest of the train was waking up. The sounds brought her back to the present. Almost every seat was occupied by a soldier sporting a night’s stubble and a wrinkled uniform, on his way, she suspected, to fight in the Pacific. The nation was at war and the entire population seemed to be on the move. Traveling, never easy, had become nearly impossible for anyone not in the military.
A deeply Southern male voice boomed suddenly, “Dixie! We been lookin’ all over this train for you!”
A second voice added, “Yeah! For you and for our money!”
The two soldiers hovered overhead. Neither could have been older than nineteen. The one grinning boyishly was taller and slimmer and blond, and by far the handsomer of the two. The other one, who looked ready to fight the whole car, was short and squat, with the build of a boxer and the face of a not-very-good one. Both wore haircuts that were little more than fuzz, suggesting that they were fresh from boot camp.
Dixie reached for their hands as if they were long-lost family. “Bobby Ray! Milton! I was prayin’ I’d run into you boys again!” Something told Sally she wasn’t nearly as happy to see them as she let on.
“Sally, honey, I want you to meet two boys I met right here on this train last night,” Dixie said. “This is Bobby Ray and this is Milton. Bobby Ray’s the friendly one who’s just cute as he can be. And Milton’s the one who looks like he’s gonna eat us both alive.”
Milton grimly jerked his hand away, but Bobby Ray showed no sign of letting go, and Dixie had to almost pry herself away from him.
“Boys, this is Sally Ketchum. She’s on her way to Sweetwater with me to join up with the WASP.”
Milton was too busy glaring at Dixie to nod back. But Bobby Ray nodded quickly and then got back to admiring Dixie. Sally thought he looked exactly like what he almost certainly was, a sweet but simple farm boy who was making a fool of himself over the most beautiful woman he’d probably ever seen.
“What you boys been up to since I saw you last?” Dixie dipped into her handbag for her compact. When she pursed her lips at her reflection, Bobby Ray turned so red Sally thought steam would come out his ears.
“Lookin’ for our money by way of lookin’ for you!” Milton blurted. His accent was thicker than Bobby Ray’s, his neck and arms and upper body all muscle, probably from growing up on a farm in Alabama or maybe Mississippi, Sally decided. When he said the word “money,” his mouth tightened, and his eyes got cold and hard. She knew she wouldn’t want to get into an argument with him. She was sure the outcome would be settled with his fists.
Bobby Ray shifted uncomfortably. Clearly, he would have forgiven and forgotten the theft of his firstborn, so long as the thief was Dixie. “Now don’t be that way, Milton,” he said. “We been through this last night, and we already agreed that Dixie won that money fair and square. Why don’t you go on back to the chow car? I’ll catch up to you just as soon as I finish talking with Dixie.”
Milton brushed him away. “You say. I say those cards was marked, and she’s a thief?!” He motioned at Dixie. “I had me ten dollars when I climbed aboard this-here train in Tuscaloosa three days ago. But as of right now, I ain’t got the price of a spit! I’m warnin’ you: I ain’t gettin’ off this train without that money. And you ain’t gettin’ off with it.”
Dixie stood up. She towered over Milton and very nearly over Bobby Ray. If she were scared, she didn’t show it. She said sweetly, “Milton honey, Bobby Ray’s right: we settled this last night. And what was right then’s still right this mornin’?. Neither of you boys has any luck with cards. I already told you that. If you’re in financial difficulty this mornin’?, it’s your all-encompassin’ bad luck that’s to blame, not me.”
Milton’s eyes narrowed. “You got big city ways. And you got big city talk. But a thief’s a thief, no matter if she wears fine dresses or calico.”
“Now don’t you go talkin’ to Dixie that way, Milton,” Bobby Ray said.
“She got all your money, too, Bobby Ray! Or have you forgot already, now that she’s practically rubbin’ off your sleeve?”
Sally saw that Dixie’s breasts were nearly touching Bobby Ray’s arm. But by some miracle of premonition, every time he leaned toward her, she leaned away an instant sooner, so the space between them remained unchanged.
Bobby Ray turned violently red. Whatever amount of money he’d lost to Dixie obviously wasn’t as painful as being humiliated in front of her.
The commotion was attracting attention. Soldiers were getting up to see what was going on. Others craned their necks.
Dixie’s voice rose to a commanding level. “Now wait a minute, boys. There’s an easy way of settlin’ this. Milton, Bobby Ray . . . here’s what I’m gonna do.” She reached into her purse. “I’m gonna prove to you fair and square that you’re so lackin’ in natural luck that you couldn’t pick a winner if your momma and your daddy was Gypsies and the family crystal ball was the genuine article.” She opened her hand, revealing a quarter. “I’m gonna flip this quarter two times. If tails comes up even once, I’m gonna give you back every cent of your money. And if it don’t, you’re gonna have to promise me you’ll never gamble again for the rest of your natural lives and that we’ll part company friends. Is that fair?”
“Hell, no, it ain’t!” Milton exploded. “That’s a trick quarter!”
Bobby Ray stared at the quarter. His face clearly showed he wanted with all his soul for Dixie’s quarter to be just like all the other quarters in the world.
Sorrow pulled at the corners of Dixie’s mouth. “Milton, honey, I hate to say this, but you got a mean streak in you wide as Texas.” She dipped the hand with the quarter back into her purse and closed the massive yellow satchel with a snap. “But because I’m one to forgive and to forget, and because I sympathize with your financial difficulties, I’m not gonna get angry at you and I’m still gonna let you take me up on my offer—and we’ll use your quarter. Now what do you think about that?”
Milton’s face said he clearly was unclear what to think. Bobby Ray’s face clearly showed he thought Dixie was an honest woman and he was sick in love with her.
The crowd pushed forward, vying for a better view. Sally felt her throat tighten. She hated crowds. She detested the closed-in feeling, and her inability to get away if she had to. She slid lower in her seat, and wished she were somewhere else.
Milton demanded, “Why tails? Why’s it so important that we get tails and you get heads?”
A look of near-fatal pain crossed Dixie’s face. “Milton . . . I swear, you really are somethin’ else. If, by a miracle, come judgment day you do somehow get invited inside the Pearly Gates, I expect before takin’ a single step into eternal bliss, you’re gonna wanna know the price of beer. Which is another way of sayin’ you wouldn’t know a good thing if it up and bit you in the butt.”
The crowd, grown now to the entire car, roared. Milton glared at them.
“Heads is my lucky side of the coin, Milton,” Dixie said. “I can’t lose if I’m callin’ heads.”
The crowd pressed closer. Sally judged the distance to each end of the car. She was about in the middle—and trapped. The palms of her hands felt sticky-hot. She couldn’t lie to herself. She was worried.
“And we’ll use my quarter?” Milton demanded. “And if we win, we’ll get all our money back?”
“Sure, honey.” Dixie smiled at him.
The men cheered. So many faces had crowded around now that Sally no longer could see either end of the car.
Dixie held out her hand. “Well, where’s your quarter?”
Milton fumbled in his pockets, but he couldn’t come up with that kind of cash, and he turned to Bobby Ray, who also proved destitute.
A quarter appeared from the audience.
Milton grabbed for the silver. “I’ll do the flippin’?!” But he was an instant too late.
“Be my guest, Milton.” Dixie held out her hand, a shiny quarter waiting in her palm.
He eyed the quarter suspiciously but accepted the piece and, with no fanfare, flipped it into the air. The tension in the crowd skyrocketed. Sally felt a growing sense of dread as she watched the piece tumble end-over-end in a near-vertical rise before coming to a slamming stop between the back of Milton’s hand and his palm.
All eyes fixed on the spot.
“Heads,” Dixie announced with an umpire’s finality.
A hundred throats roared. Even Bobby Ray looked happy, though he had just lost half his chance to get his money back.
Milton eyed the quarter as if all his prior eying had only been a warm-up.
“What are you waiting for? Toss it!” someone yelled.
“Maybe he’s waiting for it to grow another tail!” someone else hollered.
“Hey, Milton honey, everybody would like to get back to gettin’ ready to go to war,” Dixie said. “So if you don’t mind, stop lookin’ at that poor defenseless quarter like you’re gonna snap its head off and give it a toss so the rest of us can get on with winnin’ what’s left of the war.”
Sally gritted her teeth. If only Dixie had never opened her mouth. If only she’d minded her own business, instead of robbing who-knew-how-much of the train of every penny she could get her hands on, no one would be minding them now—and an entire car of young soldiers wouldn’t be on meat hooks and excited out of their minds to do who knew what! She wished that she’d never met Dixie!
Milton gave Dixie a look of pure malevolence. But he tossed the quarter skyward with a quick jerk of his hand.
“Heads again!” Dixie bellowed and snatched the piece away. “Milton . . . Bobby Ray honey, it’s been fun knowin’ ya. You-all see you don’t get hurt overseas. And whatever you do, don’t gamble. It don’t pay off for ya.” She turned to sit down and paused to plant a quick kiss on Bobby Ray’s cheek and to give Milton’s shoulder a squeeze.
“Hey!” Milton demanded. “I wanna see that quarter!”
She held the piece out to him.
He eyed it closely. “This ain’t the same quarter, is it? You switched ’em, didn’t you?”
“Now hold it, Milton.” Dixie’s voice grew icy, and she straightened to her full height.
He reached for her. “You lemme see your hands. What you hidin’ in yor hands?”
“Milton, stop!” She tried to back up, but the crowd was in the way.
In the ensuing shuffle, a soldier’s elbow thunked Sally in the head. She started to get up but changed her mind. The seats offered at least some protection, and she had a rising fear she would need it. She’d never seen a bunch so dangerous, so spoiling for a fight.
She and Tex had been in plenty of crowds. But those had been men and women and children enthralled by flight. This bunch was different. This crowd was tightly packed. And it was full of wild eyes, and faces blood-red and boiling with need for something to happen. She examined the window. If things got really rough, she probably could get through it. But the train was going full tilt. She was sure to get sucked under the wheels, or at the very least, break every bone in her body when she hit the roadbed.
Her fear became anger. She’d wanted to ride to Sweetwater to join the WASP. But Dixie had popped up like a bad dream and insulted her and read everything about her as if she were just a bunch of tea leaves. And now, thanks to Dixie, there was a very real and growing possibility she was going to get stomped like an old turnip!
“Show me them hands.” Milton pulled at Dixie’s fingers.
Charged by the urgency in her voice, the crowd somehow surged forward.
Suddenly Dixie screamed. The effect was like throwing gasoline on fire, and in an instant, the crowd turned into a mob.
A fist, big as a plate and toughened by the best training the United States Army could provide, crashed into Milton’s jaw. He flinched, but his grip on Dixie’s hands held fast. Then a second fist, and a third and a fourth, found their mark. Suddenly the whole car seemed to be swinging. Torn between releasing Dixie’s hands and defending himself, Milton chose to cling to whatever chance he had of regaining his money, even as he was being driven to the floor.
Dixie let out another scream.
Sally spotted a hand. It had snaked through the bedlam and found Dixie’s rump. The hand clamped down hard, causing Dixie to yell again—only this time, it was a full-blown bellow.
Sally jumped to her feet and onto the soldier’s back, surprising herself almost as much as him, and they both toppled to the floor. Suddenly she found herself trapped by a swirl of feet and falling bodies. The toe of a heavy combat boot brushed her forehead. Another barely missed her eye. She raised her arms to protect herself. But boots were coming at her from all directions. It was all she could do to avoid being trampled.
After what seemed like forever, she heard an enraged voice bellow, “Attention!”
Those who could do so stood up. Others, fallen across the floor and the seats and each other, complied as best as their individual situations allowed.
“What’s going on here?” The young lieutenant who had pushed his way into the car was boiling mad, the two MPs with him obviously poised to perform whatever mayhem he desired.
Milton scrambled to his feet. His left eye was swollen and his nose looked broken, but only the threat of the lieutenant’s glare caused him to finally free Dixie’s hand.
Sally pulled herself from beneath a soldier whose eyes had rolled back in his head. He looked no more than sixteen. After satisfying herself that he was breathing, she climbed to her feet.
“Well?” The lieutenant was tall and thin, and his ears stuck out like buckets. He reminded her of a boy she’d known from church who’d gone off to the Pacific to proselytize and had so annoyed the locals that they’d eaten him.
Dixie took her time rearranging her dress and the items underneath before answering. “We were havin’ a discussion and it kinda got out of hand.”
“A discussion?” The lieutenant glared. “How did you women get aboard this car? You know better, I’m sure; I imagine you’ve been arrested before.” He slapped his hand against his leg in a subtle act of punishment. “Well, I can assure you it won’t go lightly for you this time. Perhaps six months in a cell in one of these West Texas jails will convince you to find another line of work.”
“Jail?” Dixie dropped all pretense of preening. “What for?”
“Prostitution!” The word cracked like a rifle shot.
Sally stared at him in disbelief.
“The hell you say!” Dixie’s chin thrust forward.
“You will not curse! Do you hear me? You will not curse!” His face turned a redder shade of red.
“Sergeant!” The lieutenant nearly screamed the order.
One of the MPs stepped forward. “Yes, sir.”
“Place these women under arrest. When we reach Sweetwater, turn them over to the sheriff.”
“Now you hold it right there, Lieutenant,” Dixie said. “And you, too, cowboy.” She stuck a finger into the surprised MPs chest, causing him to stop and back up. “Nobody’s arrestin’ nobody! We have as much right to be in this car as any of these boys.” She indicated the wide-eyed soldiers who were watching the unlikely drama unfold. She dug into her purse and shoved the papers from the War Department into the lieutenant’s face. “I’d think long and hard about what I was doin’ before I started doin’ any arrestin’?. ’Cause you’re about to get yourself into a heap of hot water for keepin’ two pilots from reportin’ to the army for duty.”
“Pilots?” He snorted. “Are you suggesting you’re flyers . . . that you’re going to fly for the army??” The buckets on the sides of his head wiggled menacingly. “I would have thought you could concoct a better story than that. You must take me for a fool.”
Dixie looked like she was deciding which side of her mouth to spit him out of. “The only place I’d take you is out behind the barn, Lieutenant. And you can bet I’d have my leather strap with me when I did.”
They glared at each other until the lure of the papers became too strong, and he snatched them from her hand. His expression quickly changed to doubt.
“I never heard of the WASP.” He looked at her.
“Well, that’s OK, Lieutenant, ’cause I think all of us are pretty sure Eisenhower’s never heard of you.” She snatched back her documents. “But you might make it a point to remember the name in the future, just so you don’t make the same bone-headed mistake twice.”
“I am an officer!” he bellowed. “You will not speak impertinently to me!” His cheeks bulged. His buckets wiggled.
Dixie didn’t flinch. “And I am a civilian traveling on orders from the War Department. You will not piddle on me!” She returned the papers to her purse.
“Sergeant!” He almost choked from the effort of yelling.
“Return the men to their seats and then report to me in the mess car. And bring the perpetrators of this melee with you. I’m going to get to the bottom of this.”
“Yes, sir. And what should I do about them?” He indicated Dixie and Sally.
“Do as you’re told, Sergeant.”
The lieutenant spun on his heel and marched out of the car.
The sergeant swung into action with the practiced ease of someone who travels the same road daily. “At ease! Shut up! Get back into those seats and stay put! You’ll get your bellies full of fighting soon enough. The next man who causes trouble is gonna cross the Pacific doing the dog paddle—and I mean double-time, with full backpack and ammo!”
Two-hundred feet scrambled to obey.
“You and you . . .” He indicated Milton and Bobby Ray, whose ragged appearance suggested they had been at the center of the fighting and therefore must be guilty of whatever offense needed a culprit. “Come with me.”
Milton glared at Dixie, but one look from the big MP kept him from arguing. Bobby Ray looked longingly at Dixie, his will to live lost.
The sergeant turned smartly and, with a final appreciative look at Dixie and barely a glance at Sally, he and the other MP ushered Bobby Ray and Milton from the car.
Sally collapsed into her seat. She wished the lieutenant were still in front of her. She would have punched him in the face.
Dixie retrieved a fresh handkerchief from her purse. She leaned sideways, and Sally felt her dab at her face. When Dixie pulled away, there was a smudge of blood on the cloth, and Dixie’s hands were shaking.
Dixie took a deep breath. “I wanna thank you, honey, for helpin’ me out. I was startin’ to feel like Custer after he got himself surrounded by those Indians. If that numbskull lieutenant hadn’t showed up when he did, those boys would have had my virtue in another minute.”
She leaned forward again to press the handkerchief against Sally’s forehead. “On the other hand, I’m not gonna blame these boys too much. I bet most of ’em haven’t even had a real girlfriend yet, and now they’re goin’ off to war. They just saw a chance to see what a real woman feels like and they took it. I may be the last thing some of ’em ever touch that feels real good. If that brings any comfort when they need it, then more power to ’em.” Despite her bravado, a quiver still lingered in her voice.
Sally shoved her away. “Quit pretending that you weren’t scared! And you may not care who touches your body, but I’m mighty particular who touches mine!” Too late, she realized she was shouting. Every head in the car had swung around.
Dixie put her finger to her lips. “Honey, I’d appreciate you lowerin’ your voice. Soldiers stay in heat pretty much all the time, from my experience. I’d hate for ’em to get the wrong idea about me. If you think back to what I said, hon, I didn’t say anything about warmin’ any sheets with anybody. I just said I’d look the other way while they got a little feel to remember home by. As to bein’ scared: maybe I was, but I didn’t back down. And neither did you!”
Sally wondered if it was even possible for a soldier to get the wrong idea about Dixie. She still was shaking. The terror of the last few minutes was only now getting its full grip on her. She hadn’t thought before jumping on the soldier’s back. Dixie had been in trouble and she’d just acted. It had been the right thing to do, and she knew she’d do it again—even for Dixie, who, she reminded herself, was responsible for getting her into this mess. She hissed, “I didn’t know when I climbed aboard this train that I was going into hand-to-hand combat, thanks to you! Thanks to you, I nearly got killed!” She started to get up.
Dixie grabbed her arm. Her voice dropped so no one could overhear. “Most of ’em are barely eighteen, Sally. They’re going to die, a lot of them. It’s got nothin’ to do with preachers or with fancy books or with whatever high and mighty morals and rules somebody fed ya so you wouldn’t have to think for yourself. It’s just a fact and it’s goin’ to happen, just as sure as the sun is comin’ up tomorrow—and they don’t have anything to say about it. Though they know it, deep down, some of ’em. They’re going to die in a thousand horrible ways so what’s good and right about the world can go on bein’ good and right. So it’s OK by me if they get a little worked up. Just like it’s OK by me for ’em to get a little feel of a soft fanny; it seems like a small price to pay. Wouldn’t you say so?” Her face, normally so much in a hurry to go its dozens of different ways, was rock-still.
Sally bit her lip. She wondered what Tex would have thought of this beautiful woman who talked like a typical Texan, but who handled wild soldiers with the same skill and confidence that she dealt cards and challenged authority, and who had a way of making sin sound no more wrong than offering a hand to a drowning man. He would have liked her, she was sure.
With that firmly in mind, and in spite of her father’s preaching, she had to admit she liked Dixie, too. Being with her was like riding a cannon-ball. Everything speeded up. Every moment became exciting. She was sure Dixie would never be cold or hungry, or down-and-out-poor. Dixie would never get into a jam she couldn’t get out of, nor fall in love only to have her heart broken. She was going to learn plenty from Dixie, though she wasn’t ready yet to forgive her.
Dixie apparently had decided that a peace agreement had been struck between them, for she gave the handkerchief a final swipe and, as if nothing at all had happened, leaned back and inspected her work. “You know, hon, you’re really not that bad lookin’?. I suspect the army’ll put some meat on ya. Then if you wear some makeup and do somethin’ with that hair and start dressin’ in somethin’ other than an old wore-out flour sack, you’ll turn a head or two.” She returned the handkerchief to her purse.
Sally felt her forehead. The wound was small. It would heal quickly and leave no evidence behind. She asked, “You don’t think this is the way the army is going to treat us, do you?”
Dixie had been inspecting her own damage in the mirror of her compact. Miraculously, her makeup had mostly survived, as had her hairdo. She patted back a raven-black tuft. “Hon, in the words of Betty Lane Striplin’?, ‘You’ll meet some who’ll try to paw ya and you’ll meet some who’ll try to keep ya from doin’ your job. But mostly, you’ll meet some of the greatest guys in the world, and some of them will become your friends and you’ll wind up havin’ more fun than any good girl ought to.?’?”
She finished herding her hair and making repairs to her face, and she returned the compact to her purse. “Just remember that we’ve got the president on our side. He’s kicked the Germans’ butts and the Japs’ butts, and I’m confident he’ll kick American butts if anybody gets in the way of us becomin’ WASP.”
Sally nodded. But in her limited experience with men, she’d learned enough to know that even a president wasn’t likely to change ways of thinking that had started at the beginning of time.
Dixie leaned forward again. Sally felt the graze of her hand against her ear. Dixie opened her fingers, revealing a quarter. “What you wanna bet that you’re not the only one whose lucky side is heads?” She sent the piece soaring and captured it with an expert snatch, and then opened her hand to reveal that it had landed head-up. Dixie grinned. “See, you’ve got nothin’ to worry about. Your luck’s changed already.”
“You stole those soldiers’ money! If you’d left them alone, none of this would have happened!” She remembered this time to keep her voice low.
Dixie grew serious. “No, I didn’t. Those two couldn’t have won at poker if they’d been playin’ a nun, and I told ’em so. Honey, soldiers and poker go together just as naturally as people and breathin’?. You can’t separate the two for very long, any more than you can hold your breath.”
Her grin reappeared. “But what I didn’t tell ’em about was me. My daddy was a great salesman; I told you that. Well, he learned from the carnies. I knew the taste of cotton candy almost before I knew the taste of my momma’s milk. He was a short-changer. Do you know what that is?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “He’s the fellow who sells you your ticket. You give him a dollar for a nickel ticket, and he gives you back fifty cents in nickels and pennies. A good short-changer can make more money than Rockefeller, and my daddy was one of the best. He could look at a man once and know whether he hid his money in the backyard or under the mattress. That’s the biggest part of bein’ a great salesman, bein’ able to read people.” Her hand made an ever-so-slight movement, and the quarter disappeared. Her smile broadened, sending the parts of her face racing. “Just like an open book.”
The squeal of brakes on hot steel announced that the train was slowing down. Sally looked out the window. Ahead was the unmistakable outline of a station.
Dixie stood up. “Well, you better start gettin’ goin’?, if you’re still plannin’ to get off at Sweetwater, ’cause this is it.”
Sweetwater looked exactly as Sally remembered it from the air: a little town in the middle of nowhere, its residents mostly merchants who brought civilization to West Texas’s far-flung ranchers.
Dixie busied herself with the adjustment of some garment beneath her dress. “Hon, you never did tell me the name of that boyfriend of yours who got himself killed.”
Sally remained fixed on the town emerging outside the window. “His name was Tex Jones.”
Dixie popped a bubble from a fresh wad of gum. “Oh, a Yankee.”
Sally looked at her. “What do you mean?”
Dixie gave her gum a half-dozen chomps.
“I wouldn’t have guessed he would have been a Yankee, is all. I would have thought you’d have fallen for a Texan. That’s all I meant.” Seeing Sally’s confusion, she added, “Oh, come on, honey. Nobody from Texas calls himself Tex. That’s strictly for Easterners. Your boyfriend was a Yankee. That’s nothin’ to be ashamed of, so long as you liked him. I’m sure he was nice enough.”
“Sweetwater. Next stop Sweetwater.” An elderly conductor strolled down the aisle. He slowed to admire Dixie’s derriere before disappearing through the door at the end of the car.
The train slowed to a creep.
Dixie gave her hair a final pat, Tex apparently forgotten.
But Sally was still thinking about what Dixie had said. Tex hadn’t talked like a Yankee. In fact, he’d had no accent, which she’d noticed when they met, but it had become so unimportant that she’d forgotten about it until now. Over the course of their months together, she had assumed he was as much a Texan as herself, but somehow had escaped the twang and drawl that were so characteristic of the state. She’d even consciously emulated him, to the point that she’d lost most of her own accent. Now to have an entirely different possibility thrust upon her after all this time was dizzying.
The train stopped.
Dixie pointed out the window. “Uh, oh. Look what’s waitin’ for us.”
Standing on the ramp adjacent to the track, and looking annoyed to be doing so, was a sergeant. He held a clipboard in his hand and there was a stub of yellow pencil wedged behind his right ear. Sally guessed him to be in his mid-forties, judging by his thinning gray hair and belly. His face, which was burnt deep red by the sun, was set in the downcast and forlorn look of a basset hound.
“I do believe we’re about to meet the army.”
Published by McBooks Press 2011 • Copyright © 2011
by Karl Friedrich