LOCKHEED-VEGA – Daphne Bellflower
LOCKHEED-VEGA – Daphne Bellflower
Helen sat quietly at the bar nursing her whiskey. Her glass was almost empty. She would have to order another or the bartender would glare at her, shaming her for sitting at the bar without a drink. She sighed and looked around at the small, dark room.
There were only a few people in Little Joy Cocktails this afternoon. She checked her watch and saw it was only 3:30. She had another hour to wait. At least the Little Joy, as the regulars all called it, was several degrees cooler than her apartment.
Business at the bar wouldn’t pick up until the workday was over. Then a steady stream of tired men and women would wander in, talk and drink for a few hours before staggering home. Helen was envious. She missed having something to do during the day.
“Mr. Lee,” she asked the unsmiling bartender, “could I get another Four Roses? On the rocks?”
The door swung open. For a moment the bright Los Angeles sun slashed the bar’s dim interior.
A wiry man ambled in and walked up to the bar. “Hey you,” he said to Mr. Lee, “I want a beer. Make it a Schlitz.” He tossed a few coins on the bar and looked around. He fixed his gaze on Helen, looked at her slim legs in their mended stockings, her full lips and her dark blonde hair.
“Are you dancing?” he asked her. Helen looked up, startled. She looked at the empty floor in front of the Wurlitzer. “Are you asking?” she said. She stared at him curiously. He was a stranger, she hadn’t seen him at the Little Joy before.
He grabbed his beer, and pulled a stool up next to her at the bar. He was glad to be inside, away from the glaring sun. He loved the weather here in Los Angeles, there was never snow and not much rain. But he had been outside for the past few days and wanted a break. He supposed Echo Park was a nice place for families, but the cops weren’t too accommodating to the men drinking and sleeping on park benches.
Today was different. He had a little money from doing odd jobs, the sort of things other people didn’t want to do. He usually made just enough to keep from going hungry and to buy cheap booze when he didn’t steal it from one of the vagrants at the park. Today he didn’t want to drink out of a brown paper bag, and he wanted to fuck a woman. The order this happened in didn’t much matter to him.
“Charlie Slocum,” he said, extending his hand. “Happy to meet you. What’s your name.?”
“Helen,” she said slowly, glancing at Mr. Lee. Mr. Lee avoided her gaze as he usually did, and continued polishing highball glasses with his grimy bar towel.
She tentatively shook his outstretched hand. He was about 30 she guessed, maybe a few years older than she was. He was tall and slim, with a smile so big it was almost a leer. He was sort of handsome, except for his left eye. His left eyelid drooped down, making it look like he was about to fall asleep.
“Why is such a pretty girl here by herself?’ he asked. He took a big gulp of beer, and used the back of his hand to wipe the foam off his upper lip. He looked at her left hand and saw the wedding ring with its pear-shaped diamond. “Aren’t you a married lady?” he asked, gesturing toward her ring.
“I’m guess I’m not married anymore” she said quietly, taking a sip of her whiskey. “My husband was killed in the war. I guess that makes me a widow.”
“Oh hey, I’m sorry.” he said, “I was in the war too. I was in the Army. Where did your husband serve? In Germany or France? England?” He took another drink of his beer.
Helen shook her head. “None of those places. He was in the Pacific. He was fighting in some islands I guess, but I don’t remember where. I don’t really care. His plane was shot down in 1944.”
“Now that’s a lucky coincidence,” he said excitedly, “I was in the Pacific too. I fought in Okinawa.”
She stared at him. “Why the heck do you think that’s lucky?,” she asked, taking another sip of her drink. “It sure wasn’t lucky for Bob.”
Helen tried not to say his name too often, or think about anything that came before 1942. It made her miss him too much. She’d known Bob since they were kids. They went together in high school, and got married as soon as they graduated. But then Pearl Harbor happened, and he went away and didn’t come back. Not even his body. That was somewhere in the Pacific, or so they told her.
Charlie looked at her carefully. She wasn’t the type he usually went for when he wanted to get laid. Helen seemed a little too ladylike for his tastes. Still, she was drinking cheap whiskey. In his experience, whiskey eventually triumphed over good manners. It was always a matter of time.
“Sorry Helen,” he said, “I didn’t mean to offend you. I’m a stranger here and it’s hard for a guy like me to meet people. Los Angeles is a big city.” He finished his beer. “Another beer over here,” he said sliding his glass down the bar like a cowboy in a western movie. Mr. Lee glared.
“Where are you from?” she asked, forcing herself to take a small sip. She didn’t want to drink too fast because she didn’t want to spend too much money. Bob’s Air Force benefit check was almost gone this month. Helen had just enough for a couple days worth of food, drinks and her rent.
“Idaho,” he said, “Wallace, Idaho. It’s way up north. Little tiny town. That’s where everybody in my family lives.”
“Why don’t you live Wallace, Idaho?” Helen asked. “You wouldn’t be a stranger then. You probably know everybody who lives there, right?” She smoothed her skirt over her legs. He had scooted his bar stool a little closer to hers. She wasn’t sure she liked it.
He laughed. “I bet you never been to Wallace, Idaho.” he said. “Sure, I guess it’s all right. But there’s nothing to do there but work in the silver mines. Everybody I know works in the mines from sunup to sundown. My dad and my brothers too. That’s no kind of life for a man. You never see the daylight.”
He shook his head and laughed. “I was actually happy when the war started,” he said. “It gave me an excuse to get myself the hell out of Wallace.” He watched her eyes widen. “Beg your pardon ma’am. Sometimes I forget my language when I’m around a lady.” She blushed. “You’re pretty,” he said. “You’re prettier than the girls I knew back in Wallace.”
Helen stared at her whiskey glass, almost empty now. She remembered her afternoons during the war. She sure wasn’t sitting in a bar. After most of the men left Los Angeles to fight, the factories needed extra help making bombs and the planes to drop them out of. Because labor was scarce, women started going to work.
Her mom was the one who convinced Helen to apply at the factory. A lot of her old high school friends already worked at the Burbank plant. She could take the bus there. Her mom said she’d watch Andy and Jane so she didn’t have to worry about them. She thought a lot about those days. She missed working and she missed making her own money.
“Hey,” he said, pulling her sleeve. “You aren’t listening to me. I asked you how long you’ve lived in Los Angeles.” Helen swallowed the last of her whiskey. “I was born here,” she said. “I grew up in Glendale. Bob and his family lived across the street from us. We knew each other when we were kids.” She paused. “My mom still lives in Glendale. Dad died right after the war ended.”
“Another drink for the lady,” he said, motioning grandly to Mr. Lee. “And I’ll get another beer. Keep ’em coming.” He leaned over and whispered in Helen’s ear, “I thought Los Angeles got rid of all the Japs when the war started.”
She shook her head. “I think Mr. Lee is Chinese,” she whispered back. “That’s why he’s still here.”
“Japs, chinks, I could care less,” he said. “They should all get out of here. Mexicans too. One thing I miss about Idaho, well only whites live there. They’d run this guy out of town.”
Mr. Lee set the drinks down in front of them. “No tab,” he said, “you pay now. ” Mr. Lee waited, arms crossed until he handed him a dollar. “No change,” Mr. Lee said, and walked off.
“Let’s toast,” he said, turning to face her. “Here’s a toast to pretty Helen and sunny Los Angeles.” He took a big drink of beer and smiled.
Helen sipped her third whiskey. She was less nervous of him now. He seemed friendly, just looking for someone to talk to. Los Angeles was pretty big to somebody from Idaho she supposed. Also he had been in the war, in the Pacific just like Bob. Except he had come back.
“What’s your name again,” she asked, her words slightly slurred. “Charlie Slocum,” he said, grinning. “Private Charlie Slocum at your service.”
“Well Charlie,” she said, “What kind of work do you do? Why are you here in the middle of the day?”
“I’m between jobs,” he said. “I do a little bit here, a little bit there. You know, janitor work, warehouse work, odd jobs.” He finished his beer and signaled for another. “Just trying to figure out how to make a living here.”
“Don’t you get money for being in the war?” she asked. “I get a check every month for Bob. I thought all the veterans got GI benefits.” He had scooted his bar stool even closer. She could feel his leg touching hers.
“I’m still working that out” he said. “Only the big war heroes like your husband get money right away. It’s always that way.” He shook his head in mock disgust, his left eye drooping lower with each beer. This distracted Helen, but she tried not to stare. Maybe it had happened in the war.
“What time is it,” she asked him abruptly. She hadn’t noticed people wandering into the bar. He was distracting her. She could still feel his leg against hers. Helen wasn’t sure she liked it, but she hadn’t moved it away.
He looked at his watch. “5:15,” he said. “Do you have to go somewhere?” He looked at her face, flushed now with whiskey.
“I have to meet my building super,” Helen said. “There’s something wrong with my kitchen sink. The water won’t drain. But now I’m late.” She shook her head, frustrated. “I was supposed to meet him at my place at 4:30. Now I’ve got another night with no sink. He never fixes anything.”
“Well,” he said, “your’e in luck. I can fix a sink just as well as your super. And you won’t have to wait anymore. Let me do it.” He searched her face. She looked away, shaking her head no.
“Why not?,” he insisted. “I fix your sink, you don’t have to call your super, and we can grab a bottle of Four Roses on the way to your place.” He grinned again.
Helen didn’t respond. She suddenly felt old and tired. She was 27-year-old woman with two kids. At least he was being nice to her, telling her she was pretty. She knew she had too much too drink, that the whiskey was letting her trust a stranger. But she had a sink full of greasy water and only the radio to keep her company. Charlie talked a lot, but at least he seemed nice.
“All right,” she said, “you can fix my sink, we can have one drink, then you have to leave.” Helen looked him in the eyes, attempting to ignore that left eyelid. “Agreed?” She eased herself off her bar stool, straightened her skirt, and weaved toward the door in her high heels.
Charlie opened the door for her. She took a deep breath to clear her head. It was a beautiful evening. It had cooled down, and the sky was turning a soft purple-green as the sun set over Chavez Ravine. She turned to him. “There’s a liquor store on Sunset. I live around the corner on Quintero.”
“Hey, you live really close to this bar,” he said. LITTLE JOY COCKTAILS blinked on and off, on and off in neon perpetuity. “Why do you think I come here,” she asked. “For the clientele?”
He went into the liquor store and returned with a pint of Four Roses sticking out of a paper bag. “Let’s fix that sink.”
They walked silently to her apartment. She lived in a little courtyard complex, a U-shaped stucco building with laundry lines criss-crossing the walkway. Helen unlocked her door and they stepped in.
“Sorry about the smell,” she said. “The sink’s been this way for a couple of days.” She felt woozy from the whiskey and the hot apartment. She wondered if she had made a mistake.
“That’s all right, I can fix it.” He ducked beneath the sink and worked for a few minutes, jiggling this, shaking that. After about 3 minutes he stopped. “I can’t fix it,” he said. “Something’s stuck in there pretty good. I think your super needs to take care of it.”
Her face fell. “Hey, hey, hey, let’s take our mind off of this. Get us a couple of glasses.” He looked at her pale face. In the kitchen light she looked tired. She was not as young as he first thought. But he was inside her apartment. Things were proceeding the way they always did. He was lucky that way.
He poured them each a stiff drink. “Let’s toast,” he said. “This is great. Two toasts in one day. To Helen.” He clinked her glass and they both drank.
He looked around her dim apartment, and saw a framed photo on the mantel. He picked it up. “Who are these girls?” he asked. “Is this you in the overalls?”
Helen looked at the photo and smiled. It was her and the other girls posing for a photo on the wing of a big plane. They all worked at the Lockheed-Vega airplane factory in Burbank. It was exciting for enough for Helen to work, let alone work in a place like that.
She was thrilled that the factory’s real purpose was completely secret. From the air, even from surrounding hillsides, the factory looked like a regular neighborhood. The government had hired people from the movie studios to disguise Lockheed-Vega with huge painted burlap tarps, little houses, rubber cars, and real bushes and trees. If the enemy flew over, they wouldn’t know it was a massive factory. When Helen first saw the what was beneath the tarps, she couldn’t believe it.
“That’s me and my friends at the plant,” Helen said. “We helped make airplanes at the Lockheed-Vega factory. I loved working there. I had my own money and a lot of girlfriends. It was a top-secret place to work, I had to pass a security check just to walk in.” She paused. “Bob was still alive when we took that picture.”
He glanced around the apartment. He didn’t know she had kids, and he wouldn’t be here if he he did. He had no interest in wasting time on people or things that didn’t benefit him. He had no use for children, he preferred dogs. He always threw his food scraps to stray dogs first, angering the other vagrants at Echo Park.
She watched his eyes searching the apartment. “They aren’t here,” Helen said. “They live with my Mom. She took care of them when I worked at the plant. She helped me when Bob died .” She blinked away tears. “I think it’s better if they stay with Mom for a while. I can’t take care of much these days.” Tears rolled down her cheeks.
That was it, he thought, there’s my chance. He grabbed her glass, put it on the table, and kissed her, hard. She jerked away, but he pulled her back. “You’ve had your drink, now go away,” she said. “You didn’t even try to fix the sink. Go away, I don’t want you here anymore.”
But he didn’t go away. He jerked her skirt up and shoved his hand down her panties. She tried to scream, but he clamped his hand over her mouth. He backed her up against the kitchen wall and fumbled with his belt. She hadn’t eaten all day and was drunk from the whiskey. It wasn’t like she was a virgin, but it had never been awful like this. She kept her eyes closed tight.
He finished, and pulled up his pants. She ran into her bedroom and slammed the door. He heard her sobbing. Gradually it got quiet. He lit a cigarette and drained the last of the whiskey from the bottle. He smiled and looked around. All in all, it had a good day.
He saw Helen’s purse on the sofa. Helen had finally stopped sobbing, the only sounds coming from the bedroom were gentle snores. He pulled Helen’s wallet out, took all the carefully folded bills, and stuffed them in his back pocket.
“Helen,” he said softly. “Are you awake?” He listed intently through the closed door. The gentle snoring continued, uninterrupted. He slowly turned the knob and opened the door. She was sprawled across the bed, asleep or passed out. He didn’t care which.
“Helen,” he whispered. He shook her a little but she didn’t stir. He looked around her bedroom. It was sparsely furnished, only a bed and shabby chest of drawers. He looked at the single framed photo on her dresser. Helen sat smiling next to a dark-haired man with a boy on his lap. She held a baby in her arms.
He looked at Helen’s wedding ring, the diamond glinting in the dim light. He tip-toed to the bed, slipped the ring off her finger, and backed out of the bedroom. With the money from her wallet and the ring, he wouldn’t have to scramble for at least two weeks. Maybe he’d get a room tonight. He smiled and walked out of her apartment.
He laughed to himself as he strolled down Quintero. Women were so easy to fool. “Okinawa”, he said, and laughed. The most action he saw during the war was at boot camp in Alabama. He didn’t even make it through basic training. The Army kicked him out after he held a knife to a recruit’s throat during a poker game that wasn’t going his way. He was glad he missed the war. But a dishonorable discharge translated into zero benefits.
But tonight that was all right. He turned and walked east on Sunset. Maybe he’d go back to Little Joy Cocktails. It was still early. He looked at his watch. It was 9:30. He had plenty of money and plenty of time. At least he wasn’t in Idaho.