An Open Door
On Friday afternoons the mood in the typing pool was a gathering storm. Heads bent tensely over keyboards. Machines clacked away. High on the wall hung a big clock, like a cold sun above the room. As the hour hand moved toward five the atmosphere became electric. Miss Grett, running the show from behind her desk felt it too, though all she ever did was take a quick, furtive glance at herself in the small mirror she kept in her plain, sensible handbag.
Edith returned to the page she was working on.
August 20, 1948
My Dear Mr. Undersecretary,
As you know, in my capacity as Ambassador, I can only refer your request to the Belgian Counsel for Immigrant Affairs. It will be my pleasure to make such a referral. You may expect a response at the Counsel’s earliest convenience.
Dull, dull, dull! Week after week of typing requests for a conference room; or a list of those invited to a reception; or a summary of the latest report from the Belgian Board of Trade. The interesting subjects were off-limits to her, and to all the other girls in the room. Edith didn’t know much about their backgrounds other than that they were all college-educated, but she thought her work as a map-maker during the war would have allowed her to obtain the necessary security clearance to see more sensitive intercourse. Maybe the others had done their share of secret stuff, too, and were similarly denied. Who knew? Walter would say that wasn’t the kind of thing you could discuss.
In the two months she’d worked there she’d made no friends, probably because she didn’t want to talk about herself. There was always that phase of polite inquiry when you got to know someone, wasn’t there? She didn’t like answering personal questions, and could easily avoid them. Except at that inane luncheon last month. One of the typists had gotten engaged. Dora, it was. How did Edith end up sitting next to her? On her other side was Lillian, plain as a post, who looked cross every time she glanced at Edith because Edith was pretty, with dark hair and skin so pale Walter sometimes called her Snow White.
Lillian asked Edith if she had a fella. The reply stuck in her throat like a piece of stale bread. All Edith could do was shake her head. Lillian seemed pleased by her response, and by the big plate of spaghetti in front of her. After that, Edith steered clear. She assumed they thought her a snob, or neurotic, or in the grip of some devastating sorrow that made socializing too painful to bear. Who cared?
The hour came, and the storm broke. Typewriters fell silent; excited voices rose. Chairs were pushed out and then back in. Drawers opened and closed. Shoes smacked across the tile floor. There were no coats or jackets to pull on, no umbrellas to pull from the many stands positioned near the door. The weather was hot, sticky, and horrible, as only late summer in New York City can be, or so said Miss Grett, who didn’t complain much as a rule.
Edith removed her document and put it in the wooden box on her desk. You weren’t allowed to leave anything in your typewriter when you left for the day. She wished she’d had time to finish it, because she’d have to begin it again first thing on Monday. She was too distracted by the coming weekend, and the thing that always cast it down—another letter from Walter, which she was sure to find when she got home. She’d traveled quite a distance in herself, because of those letters. First, she dreaded getting them. Then if one didn’t come on the usual days, which were Tuesday and Friday, she worried. When his tone was neutral and pleasant she was glad. Lately, he sounded unhappy.
From several rows away came a chorus of female squeals. A blonde typist in a pale blue suit extended her left hand to display an engagement ring. Edith thought she must have just slipped it on because if it had been on her finger all day, the fuss that was being made now would have happened before. The girl looked happy. The girls around her looked happy, too, or was there some thin veil of jealousy in their eyes? Dora had gotten her share of hungry looks. Everyone wanted to get married. When it happened to someone you knew, and not to you, weren’t you a little frustrated? Edith didn’t know. She’d never felt that way.
On her way out she said, “Congratulations,” and got warm smiles from those who heard. In the hall, she passed the Belgian Ambassador’s office. The door was closed, and spirited classical music played on a phonograph inside, Beethoven’s third symphony if she had to guess. She’d only laid eyes on the man once or twice. She assumed that being assigned to his department she’d see him daily, but the only one who did was Miss Grett. Monsieur Parthon was pretty much what one would expect—middle-aged, plump, balding, and with a splendid handlebar mustache. He’d called her “Mademoiselle” and nodded as he went by. That was over a month before.
She stepped onto the sidewalk. The heat rose from the asphalt. Sweat collected on the back of her neck, just above the collar of her dress. The walk from the United Nations to the public library took her along East 42nd Street. In cool weather, it was only a matter of about fifteen minutes. Today it would be longer. At the intersection of Park Avenue and 42nd traffic was stopped in all directions. The traffic light was broken; the sidewalk thick was with people waiting to cross. A policeman blew his whistle and waved his arms. Some said it was a city’s noise that made your crazy and bolt for the quiet countryside; or the maddening nudge of the crowds; or the dirt that drove you into the washroom to rinse your hands the first chance you got, then at home to put your stockings right into the sink; even your handkerchief seemed to pick up soot, tucked away in your purse. For all that Edith loved New York, though she hadn’t at first. After Cambridge, it was like watching horses stampede and thinking all the time that you’d be crushed or caught up in a frenzy you couldn’t stop.
She got across and kept going until she climbed the stone steps of the library. She went to the Will Call desk where her two titles were waiting. Both The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn had gotten rave reviews. Walter said reviews shouldn’t be the reason one read a particular book, but how else could she know if it were worth her time?
She stood with her books and waited for the uptown bus in the shade of an office building. The bus was late. Every bus in New York City was always late. The subway was no better, but who’d take the subway this time of year? Finally, the bus lurched into view, and of course,, it was packed. She boarded and found a seat near the back vacated by a man who remembered at the last minute that he wanted to get off. He yelled to the driver and the driver yelled back, “Take it easy, Mac! How far can I go in this jam?”
Why hadn’t everyone left town for vacation? Walter wrote that Cambridge was still full of people because the summer term hadn’t let out yet. She supposed that Boston itself might be empty. Walter hadn’t said. He didn’t venture across the Charles.
As the bus rolled up Central Park West, traffic thinned. Edith got off on 86th Street and walked west, towards Riverside Drive and the apartment building where she lived with her Aunt Margaret.
Sure enough, there was a new letter from Walter in the box. Once read it would join the others in her dresser drawer. At the end of the month she would tie the bundle with a blue silk ribbon. After a while, if they piled up, she’d move them into an empty shoebox.
Edith walked up the two flights of stairs. The elevator had been out of order for three days now. The concierge was on vacation, and his nephew hard to reach, so the tenants complained to each other. Mrs. Braddock declared she simply could not manage the climb to her third-story apartment with her arthritis, though Edith had observed her doing it, with good energy and effort. Mr. Pole said it was the fault of the Russians. They were out to destroy the infrastructure of American cities. Edith found this laughable. The Russians had enough problems of their own. They’d come out of the war badly, much worse than the Americans had. People just needed something to be unhappy about, which was so silly, given that unhappiness came to us all, unbidden and cruel.
Aunt Margaret was out. She had a bridge club. She would return woozy from gin and full of good cheer. Her disposition was sunny unless her thoughts turned to her late husband, dead now eleven years. He keeled over at his desk, working late one night. He wasn’t found until the morning. Aunt Margaret thought he was stepping out on her, she’d had her suspicions for some time. She hated thinking about all the hours she spent, wishing him ill when he was already dead. She hoped his soul forgave her. She still tried to forgive herself.
Edith stood before the tall picture window in the living room and watched the summer light dance on the Hudson. Growing up in a lack-locked state made her fascinated by large bodies of water. She longed to travel abroad, sail for days on a huge, luxurious ocean liner, walk along cobblestone streets, hear violin music pour from open windows, drink rich wine, devour sweet cakes—these were her dreams and fantasies of Europe.
Edith went into the kitchen and removed two pork chops wrapped in brown paper from the refrigerator. It was her turn to cook. Aunt Margaret was scrupulous about doing her share in the kitchen. She’d had a full-time cook before the war, but since then good help had been so hard to find! She’d managed as best she could on her own, dining out a lot with friends, or in their homes, and later, when Edith moved in, she tried her hand at some simple dishes she’d made when she was first married. Edith wished she wouldn’t. Her meat was always tough, vegetables boiled to mash, and everything had too much salt. Edith suspected that Aunt Margaret’s heavy smoking made her taste buds crave the stimulation salt provided. She put the chops on a plate to bring them to room temperature. Some butter, flour, and chicken broth would make a nice gravy. There were peas she would shell. There were also two plump russet potatoes. She couldn’t decide if they should be mashed or baked and decided to bake them. She lit the oven.
Then she poured herself a glass of scotch from the bottle in the cabinet. She learned the habit of a nightly drink from Walter, who allowed himself two, sometimes more, depending on his day. He was often tense. Harvard Law school was demanding. On top of that, his admission on the GI Bill made him question his ability, as if somehow they’d made a mistake letting him in. Edith wished he had more confidence in himself. He was a bright, capable guy. Would he have been able to break so many Japanese codes, otherwise? And what of all those medals on his chest? They didn’t give those out to idiots.
She washed the potatoes and put them in the oven. Aunt Margaret would be home any minute. She probably wouldn’t be hungry, with all that liquor in her.
The telephone rang. It sat on a small table in the hall. Edith didn’t get up. She didn’t want to talk to anyone. It couldn’t be important, in any case. Bad news would have come in a telegram. The ringing stopped for a moment, then resumed.
Edith went to the phone and lifted the receiver.
“Is that you, dear?” Aunt Margaret asked as if anyone else would answer that number.
“I’m running late. An old friend of Laura’s dropped in and we’re going to play a few more hands.”
“What’s the matter? You sound funny.”
The sound of ice rattled in a glass.
“Well, I better get back. Don’t hold dinner for me,” Aunt Margaret said.
“I won’t. I’ll see you later.”
After she hung up, Edith turned off the stove and put the pork chops back in the refrigerator. She wasn’t hungry. The heat flattened her appetite. She’d lost almost ten pounds over the summer. She didn’t mind. She liked having a good waistline. She finished her drink, went into the living room, and turned on the radio. She sat down on the couch and slipped off her shoes. Energetic swing flowed from the speaker, and she was with Walter and their classmates, dancing to the rhythm of the band on the makeshift stage, the space hung with graduation banners, rejoicing in being young, alive, whole, all the while knowing that these conditions were transient. Since VJ day, everyone had been looking for a way back to the feel of those days, but those days were gone forever, replaced with the grim reality that peace was itself a tricky business and mighty hard to maintain, especially in a world where Little Boy and Fat Boy could fall from the sky and set the world on fire.
She was low for days, afterward. Newspaper photos were relentless. The world hadn’t been truly altered until that moment. She cried and begged to understand. Walter cited necessity.
“Necessity? Are you insane?” She’d come close to screaming.
He used his familiar tack—she spoke in ignorance, it was he who really knew the score. Seeing her color rise, he then said he admired her compassion. It was a beautiful trait in a woman and suggested the loving mother she would eventually become.
How could he talk of children, at a time like that? Who would bring children into this world?
He was dumbfounded.
“Every woman wants to be a mother,” he said.
He’d always sought to guide her, to instruct her. They fought bitterly once about this, and he admitted she knew her own mind.
Another time he said he wished she didn’t read so much. He wasn’t sure it was good for her. This, from a man who loved literature! She thought of the two titles she’d brought home, and how she would read late into the night and most of the weekend. Then she remembered Aunt Margaret had invited friends for tea on Saturday afternoon, a woman and her adult son. Oh, drat! Entertaining strangers was the last thing Edith wanted to do. Poor Aunt Margaret thought herself an excellent judge of character and was certain Edith would enjoy this young man’s company. He was quite charming, Aunt Margaret had assured her. His mother and Aunt Margaret went way back. They served on relief committees together in the Thirties and later turned their energies to the war effort. Edith wondered if she could invent a good excuse, perhaps fake a blinding headache? She used to do that with Walter until her sense of duty got the better of her.
The music changed. She envied it. To become something else in an instant—poof!
She was getting drunk.
“Too bad about that,” she said.
The light dropped, and she turned her head to take in the river. Its surface undulated so beautifully, she was filled with sorrow. Or was it remorse?
What was Walter doing right now? Researching some esoteric rule of property, no doubt. Zoning, easements, and rights-of-way. He was interning for a law professor. He’d jumped at the chance. The professor’s recommendation could very well land him his first job out of school.
Walter’s nose was too big, and his front teeth too crooked for braces to correct. But they saved him, those teeth. He wanted to join the Air Force, and the oxygen mask wouldn’t fit easily over his mouth. He was sensitive about his appearance, though he was a handsome man. It was his manner he should worry about, Edith thought. Sometimes at a party, he drank too much and dropped his g’s. His laugh was more like a bark. The oversized nose turned red. Someone once called him Rudolph, but he hadn’t heard. Once, he dropped a cracker on the carpet and she crushed it to crumbs with her shoe. Then she stood in one place until the room thinned.
The telephone rang again, then stopped.
Edith made herself a piece of toast and a fried egg. Walter loved her fried eggs but fretted about the amount of butter she used. He’d had bad skin as a teenager, and was leery of food he believed would clog his pores. Edith told him to wash his face twice a day. And to shower regularly. She said he smelled bad, so bad she urged to shave his underarms. It wasn’t a thing men did, he said. Well, perhaps a serious swimmer. Someone who competed, won medals.
Medal shmedal, she’d said. But he shaved them. Then he complained of how bad the itch was a few days afterward. She didn’t urge him to improve himself after that, though there were many times she might have. Like when he didn’t have a handkerchief during a bad spell of hay fever. She caught him wiping his nose on his sleeve and wanted to box his ears. Later she thought her response overly hostile. She bought him a set of handkerchiefs, washed, and ironed them. Yes, just as well as his mother would have.
Aunt Margaret came through the door calling “Yoo-hoo!”
“Laura’s daughter ran off with a Chinaman. Can you believe that?”
“I’d assume so.”
Aunt Margaret dropped down on the other end of the couch and patted her face with a lace handkerchief.
“It’s murder out there,” she said.
“Have you eaten?”
“Yes. I don’t think there are any Red Chinese in New York. Unless they’re with the UN,” Edith said.
“Oh, it’s probably all some nonsense. Laura had had a few.”
Aunt Margaret’s diamond bracelet caught the light. Her brooch was made of diamonds, too, in the shape of a peacock. Edith didn’t know why she wore such expensive things just to play bridge, but that was her way. One morning, just after Edith arrived, she threw an elegant satin coat over her nightgown to go down the lobby to get the paper before the bellman brought it up. Aunt Margaret liked to be noticed. Edith did, too. She was just no good at it.
She remembered the woman and son who were due tomorrow.
“I don’t think we have any fresh cream for your friends,” she said. Aunt Margaret looked blank. “The ones you invited to tea,” Edith added.
“Oh, that stupid milkman!”
“You didn’t write it on the order.”
“What did he deliver, then?”
“Well, we’ll break an egg in our tea and be very . . . oh, I don’t know. There must be some dreary country somewhere that’s a cherished custom.”
“Where eggs are in short supply, sadly.”
Aunt Margaret removed a gold case from her beaded clutch. She plucked out a cigarette from it, patted it against her opposite forearm, then lit it with a charming silver lighter decorated with the head of a dragon. Edith loved that lighter. Every time she saw it she wanted to start smoking again. Aunt Margaret inhaled deeply, gratefully, mindlessly. Her gloved hand (gloves in this heat!) reached carelessly for the heavy crystal ashtray on the marble-topped coffee table by her chair. She put the ashtray in her lap and kicked off her high heels.
“You’re a clever girl,” she told Edith.
“Yes, I am.”
“But not modest.”
“What good is modesty?”
“What good indeed?”
Edith loved bantering with Aunt Margaret. Her gaiety and frivolity made Cambridge seem like a dream. Sometimes it felt as if she’d never lived there, never had things go wrong, and would never want anything more than what she had just then.
Late that night, alone in her room, Edith read Walter’s letter. It closed differently from the others. Rather than All Best he wrote Darling, I implore you. The time has come for you to return to the marriage.
End of Excerpt
An Open Door is a highly engaging story of a young woman's struggle for autonomy and independence set in the late 1940s.
Synopsis (abbreviated): It’s 1948 and Edith Sloan is taking a break from her marriage of three years. Husband Walter is back in Cambridge, Massachusetts studying law at Harvard. Edith is staying with his aunt in New York City and working and the recently-established United Nations as a typist. While the work is dull, it lets her feel independent, the way she during the War when she was a mapmaker in Washington, D.C. Edith misses the purpose and focus of those days. Walter, who worked as a code-breaker for Naval Intelligence, is glad to put that time behind them.
Edith earned her Master’s Degree from Harvard in American poetry and then applied to continue in the Doctoral program. Although he endorsed her application at first, her acceptance put Walter on edge. He’s been spotted as a young man with a bright future, one a certain kind of wife can bring about. He then discourages her from going further with her academic career. Angry and hurt, Edith heads to New York.
Outside of work, Edith lives a quiet life full of books. She loves to read. Her Aunt Margaret is vivacious and loves to have people around. She invites a good friend and her son for tea. The tea party turns into a cocktail party. Edith and the son, Philip, hit it off and instantly become more than friends. Panicked, Edith sees that if she stays away from Walter, she’s going to end up in big trouble, so she packs up after a glorious summer on her own and goes home.
Walter is delighted to have her back, but his delight fades as his studies consume him. Edith does her part as the dutiful wife, and hosts a small party for his friends, during the course of which it become clear that Walter wasn’t exactly lonely in her absence. Soon after they are invited for Thanksgiving dinner at the home of a student Walter met in the campus bookstore, Henry McCormick. Henry is a British peer giving America a try. He’s brought his wife, Mary, along. Mary’s not having as much fun abroad as she hoped.
Edith and Mary strike up a friendship when Edith tells her she’s been offered a job at a small local bookstore, a job Walter doesn’t want her to have. They visit the store and learn that the owner has taken ill and needs a buyer, not a new employee. Mary and Henry are well-off, and Mary suggests that she and Edith buy the store and run it.
The deal goes forward, Edith takes control, and Mary quickly loses interest in the enterprise she suggested. That’s fine with Edith. She enjoys being in charge. She arranges to meet with a poet who has approached her about reading her work at one of the store’s author events. She invites Henry to go with her, though she’s a bit uncomfortable with the fact that Henry has previously expressed a polite romantic interest in her.
They meet the poet, then convene to discuss her, the store, and many other things. Edith finds Henry good company and very easy to talk to. He shares the news that Mary has decided to return to England, ostensibly to care for her war-wounded brother, but in fact to leave Henry and their less-than-happy marriage.
Edith receives a telegram from her mother saying that her father is ill and to come home to Illinois at once. Edith has no love for her father but goes anyway. His cruelty to her when she was young has made her concern for his welfare minimal. But she cares for her mother and wants to offer support.
Her mother announces a life-change that Edith accepts. Back in Cambridge, she learns that Walter was involved with the wife of a colleague during the time she was away in New York. When she confronts Walter, he admits everything but says the affair was over months before. He begs Edith not to leave him. Though tempted to be candid about her own infidelities, Edith keeps quiet.
Henry’s wife Mary decides to return to England on the pretense of wanting to care for her shell-shocked brother. In truth, her marriage to Henry is failing. Edith, Henry, and Walter attend a party at the home of the woman he slept with despite Edith telling Walter she thinks it’s a very bad idea. Edith observes Walter and his paramour first-hand and realizes that they are still having an affair. Even worse, it becomes clear that the woman’s husband knows all about it.
Edith leaves Walter and accepts Henry’s invitation to occupy one of his spare rooms. He invites her to stay on permanently, but not force a sexual relationship. Edith realizes she’s comfortable with him. He’s kind and considerate and lets her spend her time as she pleases. Edith realizes she is open to the idea of a romantic relationship and looks forward to whatever the future holds.
Title: An Open Door, a novel by Anne Leigh Parrish
Genre: Literary Fiction, Women's Fiction, Historical Fiction, Upmarket Fiction
Age Range: 18 and over
Word Count: Approximately 70,000 words
Author Bio: Anne Leigh Parrish has three new titles coming soon from Unsolicited Press: What Nell Dreams, a novella & stories in November 2020; A Winter Night, a novel coming March 2021; and The Moon Won’t Be Dared, a poetry collection due late in October 2021. Previous titles are: Maggie’s Ruse; The Amendment; Women Within; By the Wayside; What Is Found, What Is Lost; Our Love Could Light The World; and All The Roads That Lead From Home.