By: Steve Carr
In 1927 Marjorie was nine years old. She lived in a big house with her parents, two sisters and four brothers on her parents’ maple sugar farm in upstate New York, near the small town of Potsdam. The house had been built by her father and two uncles who were new arrivals to the United States, having immigrated first to Canada, where they all married, and then crossed the St. Lawrence River, bringing their wives with them. Marjorie’s mother came from an affluent family in Montreal and brought with her many fine pieces of furniture, carpets, paintings, china and a piano. Marjorie’s brothers were the first children born in the house, one year apart from each other. The boys were teenagers and taught how to tap the trees for the syrup, collect the buckets, and load the wagons by the time Marjorie was born in 1918, the year of the Spanish flu pandemic, which killed one of her uncles, an aunt, and one of her cousins.
Marjorie’s brothers took turns taking her and her sisters by wagon to the small one room schoolhouse two miles away every morning and picking them up at the end of the school day. Marjorie was separated by two years from both her younger and older sisters. She was the smartest of the three and excelled in school, with an aptitude for writing and art. She had a fondness for geography and was skilled at drawing maps. More than her sisters, she was compared in looks and mannerisms to her mother. She had acquired her mother’s affectations, and was accused of being uppity and snobbish by her classmates. She had dark, penetrating eyes and when she locked eyes with someone else during a dispute, they quickly backed down. Her teacher sent notes to Marjorie’s parents that while Marjorie was extremely bright, her manners were brusque, haughty and rude. These notes went unanswered and Marjorie received only mild admonitions about her behavior. Seeing her likeness in Marjorie not present in the other two girls, Marjorie’s mother favored her and showered her with affection. Her father – a large, emotionally distant, and crude man – rarely acknowledged her or her sisters in any way. He was happy to have sons and he spent his time grooming them to take over the farm when he died.
It was in early summer of 1927, right after school was let out until fall, that Marjorie was stricken with polio and was unable to walk. She was confined to her bed that was placed near the window so that she could look out. During the warmest part of the days the window was opened to allow her to smell the fragrant scents of spring. In the evenings her mother sat in a chair next to the bed and in the glow of the kerosene lamps she read ghost stories in French or knitted and hummed while Marjorie sat propped up by pillows and drew maps on parchment paper. The doctor said Marjorie might never walk again, but assisted by her mother and sisters, by the end of the summer she learned to walk, although with a slight limp and she remained weak and tired easily. During all the time she spent in bed she had time to watch the flickering flame on the wick in the lamp and think about her life in ways that most children don’t. When alone she would extinguish the flame and sit in the dark and look out at the starlit sky, and then using the long matches her mother kept in a box by the lantern, re-light the wick and gaze thoughtfully at the fire.
It was just a few days before school was to begin, and while her father and brothers were tapping the trees, and her sisters were playing in the nearby creek, that Marjorie stood in her bedroom and noticed the first smells of smoke. She had the window open and was watching a wild rabbit scavenging about in her mother’s vegetable garden. She turned to see smoke floating into the room from underneath the door like wispy apparitions from one of her mother’s stories. She quickly gathered up her pencils, drawing paper, two of her favorite dresses and her maps, put them on a bed cover and created a bundle that she tied with a knot. She could hear her mother screaming her name from the first floor, but she also heard the crackle of burning wood on the other side of the door.
From the window she watched the wagon with her father driving it and her brothers in the back as it sped across the field toward the house. The horses’ hooves and wagon wheels left clouds of dust in their wake. The closer the wagon got to the house, the more clearly she could hear her brothers yelling. The wagon pulled up in front of the house at the same time her sisters came running across the field, their dresses soaking wet. While her father and two younger brothers ran into the house, her two older brothers stood beneath her window and shouted for her to jump out, that they would catch her. She tossed them her bundle, and then climbed onto the window ledge and turned to see the bedroom door become engulfed in flames. She then dropped safely into her oldest brother’s arms.
Kept back from the burning house along with her sisters, Marjorie watched as her mother and two brothers ran in and out of the house carrying out a few of the things her mother had brought with her from Canada. Her father and other two brothers pumped water into buckets and tossed the water onto the chicken coops and sides of the barn to keep the fire from spreading.
Her mother and brothers were pushing the piano through the door when the entire house seemed to ignite all at once. The three of them escaped through the door, but left the piano half in and half out. When the family stood together in the field and watched the house collapse in a roaring inferno, the last thing to burn was the piano.
When the embers died, Marjorie walked through the ashes and gathered up a handful of blackened ivory keys from the piano and put them in her pocket.
It was 1942, and Marjorie had just turned twenty-four. She sat at the telephone switchboard and deftly plugged the multiple crisscrossed cords into the different jacks. It was summer and fans attached to the walls blew hot air on the young women sitting at the switchboard. Their skirts and the collars of their blouses fluttered in the constant breeze. Unlike most of the women she worked with who had husbands in a branch of the military serving somewhere overseas, Marjorie had not yet married. She had exchanged letters with a sailor from Oklahoma she had met through a pen pal correspondence program set up by the USO. He was stationed on a destroyer in the Pacific, but the correspondence ended when his ship was torpedoed and the sailor and everyone else aboard it were lost at sea. She mourned his loss for a short time, mostly in the form of having disturbing nightmares of him dying in a fiery blaze, She was left with a picture he had sent her of him in his starched, white uniform. He had a charming smile.
Marjorie lived in Buffalo, New York, which was about 290 miles from where her mother and sisters still lived. She had left the farm when she was twenty, shortly after her father died from a heart attack. They had rebuilt the house years before but it never had the same refined look and feel as the original and with the piano gone, her mother’s gentle disposition went with it. Marjorie’s oldest brother took over running the maple sugar farming when the war started and her three other brothers joined the Army. Her two sisters had married and lived near Potsdam, but she rarely heard from them. They were close but the older they got the less they liked Marjorie, and the feeling was mutual. When she proclaimed she was leaving home to make a life for herself in Buffalo they took it as a personal affront, thinking it was just another way she was saying she was better than them. Her mother took to her bed and laid there crying for two days and refused to say goodbye when Marjorie was about to be taken to the bus station by her brother.
Marjorie rented a room in a hotel, The Erie, for women only in downtown Buffalo. The room had a bed, small table and a chair, a settee, two lamps with fringed shades, a vanity dresser and dresser bench, and a regular dresser. She purchased a radio that she kept on the table and a hot plate that she plugged into an outlet by the vanity dresser. She had taken up smoking and had several of the hotel’s ashtrays with a capital E carved in their centers placed around the room. Her living space was cramped, but comfortable and clean, although the smell of cigarettes hung in the air. She shared the bathroom which was located at the end of the hall with five other women who lived on the same floor. The other women tried to be friendly with Marjorie, but her coldness toward them kept them at a distance.
Every evening Marjorie volunteered at the dance hall where the USO sponsored dances for the soldiers and sailors passing through town either on their way to their duty stations or returning home for leave. Because of her limp, she didn’t dance, but instead stood behind a table and handed out donuts and cups of coffee. Her pay as a switchboard operator gave her enough money to buy a new, inexpensive dress every two weeks along with a new pair of shoes. She was stylish without being ostentatious. She tightly curled her long black hair that she brushed back, forming a frame around her face. Save for the artificiality of her smiles as she talked with the servicemen, she was attractive, but not considered a beauty. The girls who volunteered for the USO were forbidden from dating the men, but this didn’t prevent the great deal of flirting that went on.
One evening Marjorie took a break from handing out donuts and went out the front doors of the dance hall to smoke a cigarette. She leaned against the wall and took a cigarette from the pack and put it in her mouth. She then remembered she had left her lighter in her room. A handsome Marine sergeant standing next to her lit the flame of his lighter with a Marine Corps insignia on it and put it to the end of her cigarette. She gazed into his intelligent eyes as she took a drag on the cigarette. The tip of the cigarette glowed bright red. His name was Lucas. He was passing through Buffalo on his way to Fort Knox, Kentucky where he was expected in a week’s time.
For three days Marjorie and Lucas spent every minute together. She snuck him into her room where they slept in each other’s arms in her single bed. The morning that he was to catch the train to Fort Knox, the manager of the hotel threw Marjorie out decrying her indecency and immorality. Uncertain where she’d go, she put her things along with one of the hotel’s ashtrays in a suitcase, and rode in the taxi to the train station with Lucas. He made no promises, but invited her to go with him.
The next morning, at the Cincinnati Union Terminal, Marjorie got off the train to walk around and stretch her legs. She bought a newspaper that had a large picture of flames shooting out of a window of the women’s hotel where she had lived. She repressed a smile, and without reading the story, she threw the newspaper in the trash and got back on the train.
In 1972 Marjorie sat on the sofa and watched the news coverage of the war in Vietnam. She had five children. The youngest of them, Patrick, was twenty-two, was in the Army, and stationed at a base near Saigon. She had a map that she had drawn of Vietnam with Saigon circled in red pinned on a living room wall. She hadn’t heard from him in a month or more, but she got a hundred dollar check from him, automatically withdrawn from his pay every month. Her other two sons lived in nearby suburbs in Louisville, but she didn’t get along with their wives and didn’t like the grandchildren they had produced. Her two daughters lived in California. Upset with how she had spent their inheritance that their father, Lucas, had left them, they cut off all contact with her. With her feet propped up on the coffee table, Marjorie lit a cigarette, and then exhaled several rings of smoke.
A week later two Army soldiers in their dress uniforms showed up at Marjorie’s door with the news that Patrick had been killed, not while in combat, but in a bar fight on the docks along the Saigon River. There had been a mix up about who he was since he wasn’t wearing his dog tags and had no identification on him when he died. He had laid in a Vietnamese morgue for some time before his body was found. The soldiers gave her Patrick’s National Defense and Bronze Star medals, the last earned for protecting the motor pool from being blown up during a particularly violent skirmish with the Vietcong, and a piece of paper verifying that Patrick was dead. He was to be buried within a week at a local cemetery until she told the soldiers her son wanted to be cremated.
At Patrick’s funeral services, Marjorie sat alone in the front pew of the funeral home chapel while her sons, daughters, and their families sat in the pews behind her. Patrick’s ashes inside a blue porcelain urn was displayed on a pedestal at the front of the chapel.
At noon on the day of Marjorie’s one-hundredth birthday the residents and staff of the nursing home where Marjorie had lived for twelve years gathered around a table and discordantly sang the Happy Birthday song to her while wax melted down the sides of ten burning candles stuck in a chocolate sheet cake. Marjorie had outlived all of her children and hadn’t seen any of her grandchildren or great grandchildren in over a year. During the last visit from her granddaughter, Marjorie sat in silence for forty minutes as her granddaughter chattered on and on about what she had found out about the family’s history as if Marjorie had never been a part of it. After the cake was eaten and before the nursing staff returned the patients to their rooms, Marjorie surreptitiously scooped up the matchbook left on the table and slipped it into the pocket of her robe.
That night, Marjorie took a cigar box from her dresser drawer and placed it on her bed. She took the matchbook from her robe, lit a match, and set the curtains on fire. As the room burned, she lay on the bed, opened the cigar box, and rummaged through its contents: Piano keys. An Erie Hotel ashtray. Lucas’s lighter. Patrick’s medals. A pack of cigarettes.