I’ll begin by posting one of my own short stories — inspired by my mother who visits my writing regularly.
Emma had a way of getting what she wanted. In 1937, only months after her fifteenth birthday, she wangled her way onto the pages of The Evansville Courier, the town’s daily newspaper. The column heading on page six of Friday’s edition read “Local Art Student Has Big Plans”. Below, in a photograph centered on the page, a dark-haired young girl with what appeared to be even darker eyes posed beside her easel.
Beautiful might not have been the word Emma’s friends used to describe her, but few found a better word to explain what it was about Emma that drew their attention. Slightly built, she stood a hair over five feet tall and was wafer thin. Perhaps too thin, but Emma compensated for her minor physical flaws with her sense of style like sporting the latest ankle-strapped platform shoes that added three inches to her frame and her deft use of makeup, a dab of mascara or a splash of red lipstick that guided eyes to her best features.
Then, too, she had a way with words. It wasn’t what she said so much as the way she said it, confidence oozing from her alto voice. Emma used words, phrases, tones, and mannerisms as deftly as she used a cosmetic brush.
She’d had more than a passing role in engineering the spot in the paper. One day after school, she’d approached her eighth grade art teacher, “Miss Perkins, don’t you think it be wonderful if the Courier did an article about our upcoming art fair?”
“What a good idea, Emma. However, I doubt they’d think our little fair very newsworthy. I’m sure the paper has lots of other things to write about.”
“Oh, but if you just talked to them. We”— Emma inserted herself into the equation—“could mention the proceeds are going to charity.”
“Yes, true . . .” Miss Perkins said her voice trailing off.
“If you like, I’ll call them for you. My mother knows Miss Macy, one of their reporters.”
It’s not really a lie, just a slight exaggeration, Emma thought. Emma’s mother had embroidered or beaded a number of the wedding gowns Lynette Macy described in her duties as society columnist. Once, Miss Macy had even mentioned Christine Dillon by name.
“Really? Now that might help get our foot in the door.”
Miss Perkins needed little encouragement, she was already half wound around the young girl’s finger. Emma was attentive in class and never failed to volunteer to help Miss Perkins or any of the other teachers from whom she might need a favor someday.
Regardless of who actually requested the interview, on Thursday, March 15, John Gartner, a reporter from the Courier, arrived to interview Miss Perkins and her star pupil.
“So nice to make your acquaintance Mr. Gartner,” Miss Perkins said. “We were expecting Lynette Macy.”
“I know Miss Perkins, but Lynette was out sick this week. Mr. Maxwell asked me to cover. Hope you don’t mind.”
“Ann, please, you can call me Ann. Not at all.” Ann held open the door to the Columbia School’s art studio and ushered the reporter inside. “This is Emma Dillon. I thought you might like to interview her for the article. She is one of my most talented students.”
Emma looked up from where she stood beside an easel. She gave the reporter a sideways look, her dark eyes, half-hidden by a strand of ink-black hair, held John’s glance.
Ann patted the seat of a second chair she’d pulled next to hers. John tried to fit his large frame on the hard school chair while he withdrew a notepad and pencil from his jacket. He flipped to a blank page. “So, Miss Dillon, you want to be an artist?”
Emma dabbed her brush on the canvas then wiped the sable hairs on a cloth. “I already am an artist,” Emma said drawing back to assess her work. She selected another brush and then bent closer to the canvas, squinting at a spot where she wanted to add detail. Faint lines creased the soft pouch of skin between her eyebrows. With a slow, deliberate stroke, she applied a dab of alizarin crimson to the canvas.
“Ah yes. I suppose so.”
“You’re not from the society news column are you, Mr. Gartner?” Emma said, not taking her eyes off her canvas.
“No. I usually cover local politics and the crime beat, I’m afraid.”
“Well, we’ll help you out Mr. Gartner,” Ann volunteered. “Just ask us anything you need to know. We’re getting ready for the school’s spring art fair. We hold the fair every year this time to raise funds for the city’s fine-arts museum. The painting Emma is working on now will be auctioned at the fair.”
“Unless of course someone buys the painting before then,” Emma said.
John rose from his chair and stepped behind Emma where he could watch her work. He said nothing but followed the young girl’s steady hand as she corrected the outline of an apple in the bowl of fruit she was painting. Emma leaned back again, this time twisting her head one way then the other. Finally, she turned, looked up at Mr. Gartner, arching one of her carefully penciled eyebrows as she scanned his face.
“Ahem,” John cleared his throat and stepped back. He returned to his chair. “Well, let’s see, where was I? Yes, I can see you are indeed an artist.” He eyed the tip of his pencil, bringing it so close to his eyes Emma feared they would stick where they crossed. Then he licked the point as if buying another second to gather his thoughts.
Emma sensed the reporter’s discomfort. She wiped the brush clean and placed it in the paint box, rolling her fingertips against the brush handle until it found the groove. She too was drawing out the moment.
“Would you like to see some of my other paintings? I only have a few left. I’ve sold so many already. Over forty, I think. Isn’t that right, Miss Perkins?” Emma did not wait for Miss Perkins to answer but continued, “Here it is,” she said, selecting a canvas from the stack beside her easel and angling it for John to see. “This is one I did yesterday. It’s an oil, too. Sometimes I do watercolors, but oil paintings are my favorite.”
John inspected the painting and nodded his approval of another rendering of a bowl of fruit.
“Someday, I’m going to study art. Right now, though, I’m not sure I have the time. I’ve got so many subjects to paint.”
John stared down at the blank page in his notepad and scratched a few words. An hour later, the reporter exited the school, his notebook in his pocket and a canvas tucked under his arm.
The article John submitted featured the young student—the spring art benefit received only a passing mention. His article was not the last Courier article to feature Emma.
Three years later, on Friday afternoon, Emma sprinted the short distance home from school. She doubted her father had bothered to read the day’s society column and feared he might have disposed of the paper already. She was right. She retrieved the paper from the waste bin in the kitchen and flipped the pages. Nine, ten, she counted silently. There! On page eleven, smack in the middle of the page sat a photo of her dressed as Sadie Hawkins.
Emma was again the subject of an article in the Courier—this time for her part in the high school’s annual play. She scratched through the utility drawer in the kitchen until she found a pair of scissors. Then, with short, precise snips, she clipped the article from the paper, careful not to lose a detail, not a single strand of blue-black hair, or the toe of her shoe. Emma read the article four times and the last line several more. The author reported the young woman had given up painting for singing, dancing, and acting, and, it said, she had “big plans” for her future.
. . .
Emma shook Ben Livingston’s hand. “Thank you, Mr. Livingston. You won’t regret your decision.” It’s a first step, Emma thought. I’m on my way. She’d graduated with Central High School’s class of 1940, been voted Most Likely to Succeed, and landed her first job. Not bad. Not bad at all.
“You can start this afternoon in time for the matinee if you like. I’ll introduce you to Betty. She’ll show you the ropes.” Ben paused a moment. “Miss Dillon?”
Emma snapped out of her daydream and followed Ben downstairs to the Regency Theater’s lobby and to the brightly lit glass bubble encasing the ticket booth. Betty, Mr. Livingston’s bookkeeper, rose and stepped aside to let Emma take the seat behind the tiny counter.
“You might as well take the helm,” Betty said, one hand on the back of the chair for Emma. “It’s a snap. I’m sure you won’t have any trouble at all.”
As she was taking her seat, Harvey Saunders, Ben’s partner and co-owner of the theater, passed through the front door. Ben introduced Harvey to Emma. “Emma is Oscar’s daughter. You know, Oscar Dillon.”
“Of course, I’ve known Oscar for years. Welcome Miss Dillon.”
As the two men headed inside, Emma caught a snippet of their conversation through the still open door to the ticket booth.
“Isn’t she a looker?” Ben said.
“We just might sell an extra ticket or two with our new addition.”
“Does she have any experience or references? She looks kind of young?” Harvey said.
“I’m not sure, I guess we got sidetracked. I’ll check on her in a while though,” Ben said.
“You do that.”
Several weeks later, after the theater’s last show, Emma waited beside Harvey as he locked the theater’s front door. As she took a step to leave, he snapped his fingers then said, “Emma, can you be here early next Saturday?”
“Sure thing, Mr. Saunders.”
“We’re expecting a big crowd for Tyrone Power’s visit. Three o’clock okay with you?”
Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor was coming to Evansville for the local release of Jesse James, his latest film. Ben and Harvey had arranged a dinner for Tyrone and his entourage and had succeeded in convincing the star to appear, even if only briefly, at the Regency beforehand.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world. You can count on me,” Emma said. Although she doubted needing a reminder, she dug through her purse to find a pen and notepad. She scribbled the date and circled it twice. “See you next Saturday.” Emma waggled her fingers over her shoulder before disappearing around the corner.
. . .
For the next five days, Emma could talk of nothing else but the upcoming event, trying the patience of both her mother and father. On Thursday after dinner, she bounded down the stairs no less than three times to model a different outfit.
“What do you think?” Emma twirled around, striking a pose to give her reluctant audience views of the front, side, and back of her ensemble.
“They’re all fine, Emma. You look fine in each of them,” her father said.
“What about you, Mother? Which do you like best?”
“You’re making too much of a fuss. That’s what I think. You’re just going to be taking tickets anyway. It’s not like you’re invited to the dinner.” Then, under her breath, again, “Too much of a fuss.”
Emma turned back to her father. “Daddy, tell me. Which one?”
“Well, if I have to choose, I’d say the lilac one.”
“Yes, that one’s nice, very sweet, but . . .” Emma cocked her head, catching her reflection in the glare of the curio cabinet’s glass door. “I think this one is more ‘Hollywood’. Don’t you?” The black knit dress hugged her slender figure. She brushed her hands down the side and over her hips. “You never know, I might be going there sooner than you think.”
“Uh, yes Emma, whatever you say dear.” Oscar bowed his head and turned back to his paper. A second passed, then he said, “Ah, going? Where did you say you were going?”
Emma, however, already preoccupied with selecting the perfect accessories for her outfit, was halfway up the stairs, her heels clicking against the bare wood.
. . .
“Miss, Miss,” one of the two young girls standing in front of the ticket booth cried. Inside, staring into her compact mirror, oblivious to the two, Emma checked to see that her lipstick was still fresh and her hair in place. The same girl, seeing no response from Emma, rapped her knuckles on the glass.
Startled, Emma dropped her hands to her lap and put the mirror away. “Oh, yes . . . . Here you are. Two tickets. Thank you. Enjoy the film.” Her voice was monotone, robotic, and far from genuine as she recited the words Harvey had prescribed. As soon as the girls disappeared inside, Emma rose to see over the heads of the crowd assembled near the theater’s entrance. Ticket holders for the evening show milled around the entrance. Everyone had heard the Hollywood star would stop by the theater before the show. No one dared go inside and miss even a glimpse.
At a quarter past seven o’clock, a long black car pulled in front of the theater. The crowd shuffled closer to the curb.
“Oh, there he is. There he is,” someone said. “Ooh!” Several female voices squealed in unison.
Bunched together, shoulder to shoulder, the crowd blocked Emma’s view. Even on tiptoes, she saw nothing but the backs of the throng. Then, three teenage boys approached the ticket window. On any other night, Emma might have flirted with them, but not tonight. She sped through the transaction and slid three tickets through the half-moon slot in the glass.
“Here you go. Thank you.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Emma caught sight of Harvey emerging from the theater. To reach the curb, Harvey had to urge first one patron then another aside. “Excuse me. Excuse me.”
Emma fixed her eyes on the top of Harvey’s head, following the shine from his bald pate as he weaved through the crowd. A moment later, the top of another head appeared alongside Harvey’s. This head bore a crown of thick, dark hair gleaming with reflections from the marquee lights. A perfect, artfully drawn line parted the dark waves across the top; no single hair dared be out of place. It was him! It was him! Was this all she was going to see?
“Please, please give us some room,” Harvey pleaded with the crowd.
Ben came to Harvey’s rescue, exiting through the double doors and adding his encouragement from the back of the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, please. Please step away. Please let Mr. Power through.”
The crowd retreated two or three feet. People nearest the double door entry worked their way inside the theater, perhaps hoping for a better view there. Harvey and Ben succeeded in clearing a path. As they approached the theater entrance, they took up positions on each side of the screen idol to avert any sudden crush from the patrons, while also making certain they would be prominent in any photos in the morning papers.
“Mr. Saunders, Mr. Livingston, this way,” a female voice said. Harvey paused for half a second. He blinked. Emma thought he looked puzzled, as if he did not recognize her with her hair pulled up and knotted in a chignon behind her head, a brash red on her lips. With one arm, she held open the nearest of the double doors and with the other she pointed the way inside.
Harvey blinked again then turned back to his guest, ushering him inside.
“Welcome, Mr. Power. Welcome to Evansville,” Emma said.
Ben leaned toward Emma. He kept his voice low. “There are people waiting in line, Emma. There’s no one at the window.”
Emma heard Ben but stood her ground. She had maneuvered herself successfully into view and intended to remain there as long as necessary for Tyrone to notice her. As the trio took another step forward, she smiled and lowered her eyes. With her free hand and its five perfectly shaped scarlet nails, she fingered the silver brooch she had taken from her mother’s drawer without asking.
“Thank you very much, Miss . . . uh?” he said arching one black-as-night eyebrow upward on his forehead.
“Oh Mr. Power, this er, this young lady handles our ticket booth. Emma, I am sure there are customers waiting to purchase tickets for this evening’s show,” Ben said.
Undeterred, Emma extended her hand and said, “Emma Dillon. It is a pleasure and an honor to meet you Mr. Power.”
Tyrone took her hand, bent forward, and kissed the tips of her fingers. “The pleasure is all mine, Miss Emma Dillon.”
“Now . . . Ah . . . yes, we’ll just be going. Over here, Mr. Power,” Harvey said, tugging at Mr. Power’s elbow. “Right over there, yes, that’s it. Right there.” The trio moved toward the side of the foyer where several Jesse James advertisements hung. “Just a few quick photographs, if you don’t mind, Mr. Power.”
Emma watched as they disappeared, quickly swallowed by the swarm of onlookers trailing behind. She turned and walked back to the ticket booth. A line of theatergoers stretched along the sidewalk in front of the empty bubble.