During World War II, we rented our garage apartment to Army Air Corps officers and their wives. The Army had commandeered a small airfield just outside of town, where instructors began to train fighter pilots. When the local newspaper published an appeal for citizens to rent rooms to servicemen and their families, my parents felt obligated to offer our unused servants’ quarters above the garage. After all, Ophelia, our maid, owned a house in the colored section of town and traveled to and from work by bus.
My father had never considered renting before, since to do so would have suggested that we were interested in money. In a region perennially poor, such a concern was deemed tasteless, the preoccupation of Yankees and other common people. However, the duty to further the war effort was another matter; and the extra money certainly came in handy.
An outside wooden stairway led up to the apartment, and along the railing ran a spectacular flame vine, its orange flowers hanging down in rich clusters from an abundance of dark leaves. The vine had claimed the staircase, completely hiding the railing, spilling onto the steps like rushing water. When it reached fullness in deep summer, you had to stoop at the top of the stair to avoid the torrents of flowers that flowed down from the extension of roof that sheltered the landing. And the vine’s tendrils clutched at the screen door.
When the blossoms first appeared, they were tubular, with nubs at the end. Later they fell open to allow access to their nectar. Hummingbirds, wings a gray blur, darted in and out of the trumpet-shaped flowers, hurrying from one to another in frantic excitement. Butterflies also swarmed over the vine—tiger swallowtails, gulf fritillaries, giant sulphurs. Coming from the garage, you could smell the sweet scent all summer.
The apartment was small and tidy—a bathroom with shower to the left as you entered, a modest living room/bedroom, and a compact kitchen next to the bathroom.
You wouldn’t want to spend your entire life in those cramped quarters, but it was much finer than most servants’ quarters and perfect for recently married couples caught up in the indignity of war.
My mother painted the walls off-white, bought a large hooked rug for the wood floor, and found some almost-new sheets and a bedspread in the linen closet. As a final touch, she hung Japanese wood blocks in bamboo frames on the wall over the bed, all scenes from kabuki.
When she showed the finished room to my father, he laughed.
“These boys are being trained to kill Japs, and you’ve covered the walls with them.”
“Those are ukiyo-e prints,” she said, her voice rising ominously. “Ukiyo means ‘floating world,’ brief pleasures—plays, dances, geisha girls.”
“Then why does that one have a sword?” he asked.
“Because he’s in a play,” she said. “I like the way they look, and they’re staying right where they are.”
“Good,” he said. “I just hope we don’t get reported to the FBI.”
Four couples lived in the apartment between 1942 and 1945. Stella and Mark Pegram were the last. None of them complained about the kabuki scenes.
I saw Stella a day before I saw Mark. That afternoon, I was lying on my bed, reading, when my mother led her across the lawn toward the garage. All I could see was a thick cloud of black hair bouncing on her shoulders and the fine swing of her hips. That was over 60 years ago, but I still remember the snug, white shorts and banana-yellow blouse she was wearing.
I put down my book and watched as she followed my mother up the stairs and into the apartment, brushing the leaves and flowers aside. I wondered what kind of magical face she had. I was 15.
From my room, I could see them through the apartment window, framed like a scene from a poorly lit French film. They were shadow figures until my mother turned on a light. Then they came into sharper focus. But from that distance I still couldn’t see her face clearly.
Ten minutes later they made their way down the stairs, and I heard them open the back door and come into the house. When they were seated in the living room, I walked through, ostensibly to go to the kitchen. Actually I wanted a close-up of Stella.
When she looked at me and smiled, my heart raced.
I’ve always had a weakness for hatchet-faced girls—with prominent noses and jutting chins. Not too prominent, mind you, and not too jutting. An eighth of an inch too much and you’re looking at a “witch-face,” an entirely different category from a “hatchet-face.”
Stella was the ultimate hatchet-face, of which all other hatchet-faces were imperfect copies. In addition to the ideal nose and chin, she had a strong jaw, high cheekbones, and eyes as clear and blue as a Maxfield Parrish sky.
“Mrs. Pegram and her husband will be living in the apartment,” said my mother. “He’s a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps.”
“Great,” I said.
“I hope we’ll be friends,” Stella said, and I nodded dumbly. She had a low whisper of a voice that I also found irresistible. But mainly it was her profile and those unbelievably blue eyes. I retreated to my room and lay on my bed, gazing at a world just beyond the ceiling, a world so small and discrete it had room for only Stella Pegram and me. I would live in that hazed, inadequate world for the better part of four months.
They settled in the next morning, while I was at school. When I got home in the late afternoon, I lay on my bed and watched Stella moving back and forth, passing and repassing the window as she unpacked the boxes they’d brought, attempting to take possession of three rooms that inalienably belonged to us. Every time she flashed past the window, my capacity for desire increased.
Later, I heard the sound of tires on gravel and the bang of a car door. Mark had arrived. He was tall, trim. And very blond—almost, but not quite, skinny. Today, he could model underwear in a Fruit of the Loom catalog. I watched him cross the lawn in quick strides and bound up the steps, brushing aside the green and orange flame vine with impatience. She was waiting at the door, and threw her arms around him as he stepped inside. Next I saw them through the window—locked together in silhouette, a single body with two heads moving incessantly as they kissed each other again and again.
I was startled by their passion. I had never seen my father kiss my mother, except to give her a brotherly peck on the cheek. My grandmother, whose presence cast an icy spell over all displays of affection in our house, thought kissing on the mouth was obscene. When she saw lovers do it in the movies—and in those days movie kisses were relatively dry—she would shudder and shield her eyes with her bony hands, an idiotic grin on her face. Mark and Stella would have pushed her sense of outrage beyond its limits.
I kept watching the framed window for over a half hour. Then I saw Stella’s bare back as she walked out of focus toward the bathroom. At that moment, I heard the tinkle of our cut-glass dinner bell. I waited, eyes on the window, until my mother called me a second time, but Stella never came back into focus. Not that night.
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