An Uncapped Pen

February 24, 2008

Chapter 12 – Dust Devils, Dolls and Details

Filed under: Writing — cindylv @ 5:10 am
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Chapter 12

May, 1981
Sierra Vista, Arizona

Bridie waited in the shade of a magnolia tree just outside the Main Gate and twisted her wrist to check her watch. She had almost a half hour before Mrs. Bolling was supposed to pick her up. Nothing to do but wait, she thought. Across the street at Lydia’s Market, sheets of plywood covered the broken windows. She sighed and shook away the memory of that day. MPs stood in the median checking ID cards and waving the cars through the gate. She watched the traffic stream past her. Thousands of people she didn’t know. Thousands of miles from home.

Her stomach growled. No time for lunch again. To be honest, she couldn’t find Frank or Val to walk with her to the chow hall, so she just swept and mopped the floor in her barracks room instead. Tonight, after everyone else was in bed, she’d get the electric buffer and make the vinyl tile gleam. Sergeant Simpson wasn’t going to find anything to complain about in her room tomorrow.

Another growl. She fished the last of the lemon-rosemary cookies from her pocket and stuck it in her mouth. After dinner last night with Frank and Val, Rosalie presented them with a little yellow tower of the cookies, on the house. Just before they left, Val disappeared into the kitchen to see his non-girlfriend, Lucia, and emerged ten minutes later with a sheepish grin, a smudge of lipstick on his cheek, and a small package of cookies for him to take back to the barracks.

As they were leaving the restaurant, she was surprised to find Lillian just finishing dinner with her husband, Henri. Lillian looked amazingly healthy and spry, just a few days after being released from the hospital. “Those doctors, they are not like my Doctor Bendini, at St. Joseph’s,” she told them. “The doctors here, they are not fit to look after the dogs. But I am fine. Strong. You do not worry for me.” Then she declared that she would be cooking dinner for Bridie, a celebration. “Hassenpfeiffer. With the plums. You like rabbit? You will see, I make the best you’ve had. Or sauerbraten, and spaetzle. You will like it, honey. Right, Henri? And maybe we’ll have apfelkuchen mit rahm for dessert, I think. Yes,” she nodded to confirm her decision. “ I meet you at the gate by that big soldier statue at four thirty tomorrow.”
Bridie learned quickly that Lillian declared and everyone agreed. It just seemed easier that way. Another wrist twist. Fifteen minutes. The light breeze she’d been thankful for moments earlier picked speed. In the empty lot next to Lydia’s the wind stirred up a layer of dust. Bridie watched it ruffle across the brown patch of weeds. Without warning, a gust scooped the dirt into a miniature tornado that stretched almost ten feet in the air, dancing and wiggling across the lot.
Bridie grabbed her hat before it had a chance to join the dance. She stood frozen against the wall and watched through squinted eyes. She’d never seen a tornado appear in the middle of a sunny day, right across the street from her. At home, the emergency broadcast system would interrupt the television or radio and announce a tornado watch or warning. The police would drive through the streets yelling through their megaphones for everyone to go to the storm shelters. The sky always turned from gray to green and the wind stilled. Even the birds disappeared, hiding.
“Honey, get in. Before the dust devil come.”
Bridie tore her eyes from the monster and saw that a blue Cadillac had pulled to the curb with Lillian at the wheel. Wide-eyed, she grabbed the door handle and scrambled inside, slamming the door behind her. Sand, dirt, pebbles and trash pelted the car as the twister enveloped, then passed over the Cadillac and danced its way down the street. In another second, it was gone. Abandoned, the sand and garbage dropped to the ground. Traffic resumed as though nothing had happened.
“Was that a tornado?”
“That? That was just a dust devil, honey. It’s from the hot wind. Ghost spirits, the Indians say. If it spins like the clock, it’s good spirits. If the other way, they are angry,” Lillian explained. “I think they are all angry, when they scratch up my car and make the mess all over.”
Bridie pulled off her hat and brushed her hair out of her face. She settled in and buckled her seatbelt. Lillian drove like the dust devil, aiming her hood ornament for an open spot and intimidating the other drivers into giving way, then changing lanes a second later. Bridie eased herself close to the passenger door and clung to the armrest.
“Henri say to me not to make the rabbit. Zsa Zsa, he say… He always call me Zsa Zsa. Americans do not eat like we do. Chicken. Steak. Pork chops. That’s all American’s eat. Hassenpfeiffer, it’s like special chicken. That’s what I call it to my granddaughter. Always, she ask me to cook the special chicken. So I make a roast for tonight. You will eat that. It’s very good. With gravy. And potatoes. Salad–Henri help me with the salad. And I make beets, for the color.” It occurred to Bridie as she braced against another lane change that Lillian talked like she drove.
To Bridie’s amazement, the Cadillac landed upright in the carport. Lillian was up and out before the car settled. “Henri! Bridget is here.” Her name sounded like ‘Brizh-eet’ on Lillian’s tongue. Her dress flowed along behind her as she marched across the driveway with her impossibly high heels tapping the concrete.

Bridie stood alone in the middle of the parlor, holding a glass of brown wine. Oloroso, Lillian called it. Sherry – very expensive. Lillian raised her eyebrows and brushed her index finger across her upper lip as she repeated, very. It smelled like fire, or brandy. Bridie clutched the glass with both hands, and choked down a single sip. She was right, fire. She looked around for a safe place to put the glass down, but the designer must have forgotten to leave an open space. Every table, every flat space was covered with a lace doily and lined with figurines, glass bowls, or vases. Walnut cases lined the walls and shelves above the windows, each packed with books, statues, more delicate figurines and stuffed animals. The tops of each case were completely covered with dolls. Bridie circled slowly. Thousands of eyes watched her, unblinking, daring her to spill a drop. Down the hallway and as far as she could see around the corner, nothing but dolls.
She felt them staring at her, through her. She backed up and bumped into one of the tiny sofas upholstered in a complicated flower pattern that matched the drapes and the lampshades. A furry sweater lay draped over the arm of the settee, next to a platoon of stuffed animals guarding the back. The sweater stood up, stretched, and picked its way between delicate crystal pieces arranged on the corner table before settling back into a ball with a tail twich in her general direction. Startled, Bridie squealed and covered her wine glass to keep from spilling.
“That’s Miss Mia,” Henri explained from behind her. “Lillian’s cat. She rules the house. I tell her, when she pays the mortgage, then she can be the boss of the house. But she don’t listen to me. Only to Lillian.”
“I thought she was a sweater.”
“When my granddaughter come to visit, she wrap Mia around her neck. She looks just like a sweater.” He pointed to her drink. “Give me that. I think you don’t like to drink it.” He swallowed it in one large gulp. “Maybe you will like to have a soda? Some Seven Up?”
“Uh, yes. I mean, please.”

“Sit down. Dinner will be ready in a moment.” Henri disappeared into the kitchen, leaving her alone with the dolls. And the sweater who watched her with one eye from the arm of the sofa.
Bridie heard pans rattling, the oven door slamming shut, drawers opening and closing – the sounds of home. Lillian was talking to Henri in some European language. It wasn’t Spanish. It didn’t sound like French, and it wasn’t hard enough to be German. She knew they’d lived through the war in Europe, and tried to remember if Lillian had mentioned where she grew up.
Henri returned with her soda. “Lillian say, the dinner is ready. Come to the dining room.” He extended his arm to escort her.
Bridie turned and her boot caught the nap of the thick carpet. She caught Henri’s arm as she stumbled.
“Easy, easy. You still have your boots on. I will get you some slippers. It will be softer for your feet. Wait here just one minute.” He disappeared down the hall of eyes.

The dining table was easily twelve feet long, covered in thick flowery fabric, with an arrangement of cut fresh-cut flowers and four gleaming gold candlesticks in the center. Three places were set, one at each end with one in the middle. Henri led her to the middle seat and held out her chair. After he lit the candles, he disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Bridie to stare at her place setting. A linen napkin wrapped in a gold ring lay across a small stack of plates in the center of her placemat. To her left lay three forks, and to her right a knife and three spoons—all precisely aligned an inch from the table’s edge. Arrayed in a tight formation to the front were a bread plate and knife slightly to the left of center, and three crystal glasses and a delicate coffee cup with matching saucer to the right. Not exactly a hasty fighting position, but it offered everything she’d need if she found herself ambushed by a squad of marauding chefs. The kitchen door swung open and both Henri and Lillian emerged carrying silver trays overloaded with covered platters.

* * *

Hours later, she sat on the edge of her bunk, watching Val and Frank tear into the leftovers Lillian forced her to carry back to the barracks. “She used to have a restaurant, in California, before they moved here.”
“You said she’s French?” Val asked through a mouthful of roast beef and gravy.
“Flemish, they’re from Belgium.”
“Where’s that?”
“Who cares,” Frank responded as he chewed a mouthful of food.
Bridie slid the plastic container of potatoes a little closer to snarling tigers. “It’s by the Netherlands, she said.” She noticed their blank looks. “Holland? They just moved to Arizona about 10 years ago when their son-in-law was stationed here. But now he’s on extended duty in Augsburg, probably for another six months.”
“And you can go back, right? And she’ll cook for you?” Frank cleaned the last of the gravy from his plate with a piece of bread and popped it into his overfull mouth.
“She’s a nice lady. They both are, really. I think maybe she’s a little lonely, since her granddaughter is away.”
“A little looney is more like it,” Val replied. “With all those dolls and all. Sounds creepy!”
“It’s not exactly creepy. Just full of stuff. And they said I could come back any time I wanted. I just have to call and she’ll pick me up at the gate.”
Frank belched. “I don’t care if she’s nuttier than a fruitcake, she can cook for me anytime! She reminds me of someone. An actress.”
Bridie gathered up the paper plates and plastic ware. “Zsa Zsa Gabor. That’s what her husband calls her.”

“That’s it! The one on Green Acres! I knew she looked familiar.” Val said.

“That was Eva Gabor, Zsa Zsa’s sister,” Bridie corrected. “So Frank, when are you gonna let me know about this special detail you’ve got arranged for me?”
“You’re gonna love it. Easy duty. Inside. Air-conditioned. Comfy chair. But the best part of it is . . . a Class A phone.“
“You’re giving her the Tech Library?” Val interrupted. “I wanted that. Man, you promised it to me!”
“That was before.”

“What’s a Class A phone?”

“Before what? I’ve been on that line for weeks!”
“Just since you bolo-ed out of class the last time!” Frank teased. “Let her take the library. I can probably hook you up at the rec center. Maybe even the bowling alley. If you’re interested, that is.”

“What’s a Class A phone?” she asked again.

“You can call off base all you want,” Val explained.

“Not just off post — anywhere you want.” Frank added. “But even better, EVERYBODY else wants to use it to.”


“So, they have to ask you for permission first. You get to decide.”

“So?” she repeated.

“Everyone will do favors for you,” Val explained. “You know, so you’ll let them use the phone.”

“You’ll never have to shine your boots again, or pull CQ Runner, or anything else you don’t wanna do. Someone will volunteer. You’ll see. You’ll thank me,” said Frank.

“What’s the Tech Library?” Bridie asked as she wiped a spot of gravy off the floor.
“Reference books, training tapes. Nobody goes in there. You just have to sit there and answer the phone when someone calls, and it’s probably just a wrong number anyway. Piece of cake. The only thing you’ll do is decide who gets to use the phone and when.”

“How come you get to decide who gets what jobs?” Bridie asked.
Frank smiled, “I got connections.”



  1. A lot of fun with Lillian and Henri. Moline, Illinois, across the river from my wife’s hometown of Davenport, IA, has a large Flemish-Belgian community, and I’ll have to agree that their food is excellent. The description of their knicknack-laden house is wonderful. Frank and Val display a typically American ignorance of geography.

    Chekov (I think) said that if there was a gun over the fireplace in Act I, it would have to be fired by Act III. So I’m interested in how the Class A phone will figure in the rest of the story.

    Keep it up.

    Comment by Steve Wylder — February 26, 2008 @ 12:48 am | Reply

  2. Thanks, Steve. Lillian and Henri are actually my former neighbors Nelly and Charles. Unfortunately Nelly died last year. I kept a notebook of funny sayings she used. Their house was full and they had a cat named Miss Mia. And that woman could cook. She’d cook a five course meal for 6 people, and then bring a tray across the street to feed us. My husband called her “the food fairy.” I miss her terribly!

    And don’t you spoil my surprise about the Class A phone. Just put it out of your mind for 198 pages, okay?

    Comment by cindylv — February 26, 2008 @ 1:53 am | Reply

  3. Hey — I’m loving Lillian and Henri too. Scott and I spent two weeks on Brugges on vacation a couple of years ago and it was very cool — and the food was excellent. Knowing German and some French did me almost no good whatsoever in trying to read Flemmish though! Belgium is an odd little country, but full of history back to the Romans. I also loved their house and your G.I. dialogue is of course, wonderful.

    Comment by lisakenney — February 28, 2008 @ 8:24 am | Reply

  4. Thanks Lisa. The models for Lillian and Henri and from Brugge.

    Comment by cindylv — February 28, 2008 @ 5:23 pm | Reply

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