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The first time I saw her I thought she was a ghost.
Her appearance and my instinctive reaction to the uncanny vibrations I felt are as vivid in my imagination as though it all happened yesterday instead of forty years ago.
Bing Crosby was singing "Ole Buttermilk Sky" on a wheezy jukebox in the railroad station café in Tucson. I'll never forget the date — July 22, 1946. The station smelled of steam, stale water, dried human sweat, and burned bacon. There were only a handful of weary people sitting in the sticky café, all of them surely wishing they were somewhere else.
"She's dead." I put down my faintly sour grapefruit juice and stared.
Like a good group commander, I tried to analyze my reaction. It made no sense at all, I informed the intelligence officer lurking in the back of my brain.
"You're alive today, sir," he replied, "because you pay attention to your instincts."
My impression that she was unearthly passed quickly. I disregarded it because it had been recorded in a brain dazed by habitual depression, a lifetime of bizarre romantic fantasy, months of terrifying nightmares, and a night-long drive across the desert: milk-white skin, pale-blue eyes, slender ethereal body, brown skirt, white blouse, already wet at the armpits. She slipped through the chairs and the tables dragging a heavy piece of cardboard luggage in one hand, somehow making the effort seem both insubstantial and elegant, like a minor but very responsible angel gracefully changing the location of a mountain range.
As I watched her (covertly, I thought), the girl approached the counter and sat down across from me so quietly that no one seemed to notice her. She had to order her coffee twice before the waitress was aware that she was sitting at the counter.
She looks like she's from beyond the grave: the premonition pushed back into my brain. I dismissed it as if it were an immoral desire. Grudgingly it slipped into an unused closet in the dark corners of the basement of my brain, promising that it would sneak out again, perhaps after dark.
I had been thinking about the dead that morning — a pretty common activity for me at that time, even though the war had ended eleven months before. The dead on my mind that morning, however, had not been the millions who were killed in the war (while I lived); rather, since I was planning a visit to Tombstone after my breakfast, I was thinking of the Earps and the Clantons, the legendary figures from Tombstone in 1881. The hot, dirty adobe station with a red tile roof was not the one to which Earp had escaped from Cochise County to Pima County sixty years before. But it was on the same spot. Wyatt Earp had once eaten breakfast in this very locale.
Now he was as dead as the Clantons. And Doc Holliday.
And this tarnished little waif?
She was too young and too pretty to be a ghost, I told myself. Ghosts don't have dark red hair shaped like crisp halos around high, intelligent foreheads. They don't have gracefully swelling breasts and they don't have lithe young bodies that move with unselfconscious grace.
Why not? my gloomy imagination wondered.
I no longer believed in God or life after death. I had lost my faith on the Enterprise, not in a dramatic crisis but rather in a process of slow erosion. One Sunday when I could have gone to Mass on the hangar deck, I simply did not get out of my bunk. I realized I no longer took seriously the simple pieties with which the chaplain tried to prepare us for the possibility of death.
In my letters home I continued to assure my mother that I never missed Mass except when I was on duty or in the air in my F6F.
A few years later, during the Korean War, it was a matter of debate whether or not there were atheists in the foxholes. There were, however, atheists in the air crews in the western Pacific.
I was one of them.
In principle, then, I had to reject the possibility of ghosts, particularly in the hot, dirty, enervating murk of a railroad-station café early in the morning.
Loss of your faith does not mean, I told myself, that you lose your superstitions. Or your imagination. Especially when the ghost was so pretty.
It was an early morning fantasy, nothing more. I would not even speak to her.
Rather to my surprise I discovered that my imagination had already begun to undress her and to enjoy what it found — a fine, serviceable young-womanly body, ripe for play and love.
I twisted uneasily on my counter seat. I had not given up sex quite as definitively as I had given up God, but somehow I had lost interest in it. As we would say today, I put sex on hold after Leyte Gulf. Women continued to exist and to be admirable and desirable, but more as a theoretical option than one with any practical consequences for me. I assumed that eventually I would regain my interest in them.
But not quite so dramatically and in such an unpromising place.
This winter, when I began to work on my story about Andrea King, I finally showed my wife the journal I kept in those days. "That dreadful girl," she observed tartly, "was the first woman you permitted close enough to you so that you could feel lust for her."
I pointed out the passage in my journal where I described my almost irresistible urge to peel off her sweaty clothes and devour her before I had even spoken to her.
My wife sniffed. "If young women, like that poor girl, did not excite such emotions in young men, neither you nor I would have come into existence."
"Such reactions go away when you get older," I demanded, reaching casually for the zipper of her dress.
"Stop that." She pretended to push my hand away. "And stop mooning over that dreadful girl."
On that morning so long ago in Tucson the indifferent waitress slapped a coffee cup down in front of the dreadful girl with such vigor that some of the dismal liquid sloshed into her saucer. Meekly she laid a dime on the sloppy counter next to it.
Her eyes flicked in my direction, as though she had heard my obscene thoughts. Quickly she looked away, embarrassed but not totally displeased at my erotic fantasies.
It is, my wife told me many years later when she caught me staring at a particularly enticing young woman, totally offensive to strip a woman in your imagination. "They always know what you're doing and they don't like it. So don't do it, at least not so obviously, unless the woman approves."
"How do you know that?"
She patted my thigh approvingly. "Someone like you, darling, with wavy black hair, broad shoulders, a dimpled smile, and Irish charm, almost always is approved. That hussy loves it. And you must respect the woman's modesty too."
"How do you mentally undress a woman and still respect her modesty?"
"You know the answer to that. Now please stare at me."
"Why should I imagine undressing you in public when I do the real thing in private?"
So I devoured her with my eyes. She gasped, ordered another martini, and forbade me ever to do anything like that in public again, an injunction I did not take seriously.
"Did I forget to respect your modesty?"
"What? Oh, you poor dear sweet man, of course not. You can't help yourself. You always respect women."
By that time in our intimacy I was half ready to believe her.
I looked away from my ghost child, filing for reference my imagination's observation that, while indeed it was an excellent young body, it was also very thin, almost paper thin. Virtually transparent.
Why can't ghosts be gorgeous? I asked myself, not quite ready to give up my grotesque fantasy despite the intensity with which I stared at my coffee cup. Why shouldn't you lust after a ghost? Maybe they are better in bed than living women; they have less to lose.
That perverse thought, which I remember quite distinctly, gives you some idea of the emotional condition I was in. Most young men at war don't expect to die and are astonished in that last millisecond when they discover that they are dying. I had expected to die and was astonished to find myself still alive. Instead of rejoicing over my new prospects, I had turned morose and melancholy. I was driving from San Diego to Chicago in one last romantic binge before I settled down to college and law school and River Forest affluence. What would be more appropriate than to meet a pretty ghost on the first leg of the trip?
From the perspective of four decades I can understand why someone would think I was asking for trouble. A less melancholy young man would have either dismissed the fantasy and walked away from the counter without looking back at this rather slovenly apparition or confidently made what would have probably been a transient pickup.
Not this gloomy Celtic Don Quixote. Without realizing it, I had been looking for an obsession on which to become hooked. This kid (she couldn't be any more than eighteen) was Dulcinea.
I glanced up from my coffee cup. A bedraggled and perhaps frightened Dulcinea.
Ah, frightened. There's the rub. Find a woman who seems to need protection and you have perfect bait for Jerry Keenan, USNR (ret.).
Especially when the woman has such lovely breasts, my imagination noted triumphantly.
"The Irish have a fixation on breasts," my son the Ph.D. in Irish literature (and a Freudian) remarked once in, you should excuse the expression, the bosom of our family. "When Cuchulain was threatening to attack a town in Ulster, the women of that town came forth naked to the waist, and the hero fled in terror. He jumped into a pond and it sizzled for three days."
"Some hero," his sister remarked cynically.
"Typical Irish male," his mother observed.
"Maybe the reason," his father said tentatively, "for the obsession, which I do not in fact deny, is that Irish women have such, you should excuse the expression, outstanding tits."
Then I could afford to joke about the subject — not that my compliment was invalid. At twenty-three, with little sexual experience, damn little, it was not a matter for laughter that my neighbor had left open one more button on her blouse than was absolutely necessary. My imagination began an exploration of the area with the same vigor with which I had once flown search missions off the Enterprise.
"It's fifteen cents," the slovenly waitress said, wiping the counter indifferently with a dirty towel.
"Fresh young breasts," the search mission reported, "not large but compact, neat, and inviting the firm but delicate fingers of a man."
She glanced at me again, mildly annoyed but not uninterested.
I was too innocent of the mysteries of the reproductive strategies of the species to consider the possibility that she might have been considering me in a roughly analogous process. Women (as I would complain later to my wife) are so much more deceptive about it.
"They have to be," she replied. "What would happen to me if I stared at you all the time?" I made some appropriately obscene suggestion that led her, as usual, to challenge me to go ahead and try.
That morning I knew none of these secrets. If there was seduction to be done, I would do it and she would either resist — in which case I would run for cover, or submit — in which case I might also run for cover.
Certainly I would not be seduced. Not by a shabby child.
Is she a virgin? I wondered. Then I saw the thin wedding ring on her finger. No engagement ring. Well, that ends that.
Maybe it doesn't. If you don't believe in God ...
Nonsense, I told myself sternly. Now is the time to leave. You don't want to become involved with a bimbo you meet in a railroad station. Not even if that is a very fortunate brown scapular hanging between her breasts where I wanted my inquiring lips to be.
There are Catholic bimbos too.
Even Irish Catholic ones?
Is she Irish?
Would you notice any other kind of bimbo?
It was already hot in the station. My guidebook said that in summer the usual thirty-degree variation in Tucson temperatures continued — between 80 and 110 degrees. And during the monsoon, it added helpfully, humidity added to the discomfort caused by the heat. Monsoons, I thought, happened in India. And whoever heard of a humid desert?
I had a lot to learn about this country I was exploring for the first and probably the last time.
The young woman reached into her worn purse and almost furtively searched for another coin. She withdrew a second dime, one of the tarnished "war dimes," and laid it next to the first. The waitress scooped them both up and replaced them with a nickel.
An elegant hand reached out to reclaim the nickel and then, it seemed to me shamefully, retreated, leaving the tip for the waitress, who would certainly not be grateful.
Shabby, tarnished, but with bodily movements of unselfconscious elegance. Maybe a serviceman's widow.
An eighteen-year-old widow — which, from the heights of my almost twenty-four — made her virtually a child. She was dead-tired, lonely, a little frightened, and broke. I had ten crisp hundred-dollar bills in my wallet and a checkbook which could duplicate that many times over. Perhaps I could help.
Her brown skirt and white blouse were wrinkled — all night in coach — and worn. The leather on her low-heeled shoes was cracked. Her hair was disheveled. Yet she drank the coffee (black the way it should be) as though she were in an expensive restaurant, with natural elegance.
A child's innocence softened the lines of weariness on her gently curving face. And a hint of pain that no child ought to have suffered.
Four decades later I can still feel the sting of need that accompanied my sentiments of tenderness. And can't sort them out. Immediately after I lost her, I tried to sort them out. Now I know that it was a pointless exercise.
I think, as I type these words, of my own daughters at eighteen, especially of Brigid (Biddy), who is just eighteen now. I'm not sure they were capable of riding the train into the Loop without getting lost. Looking back, I wonder how a child could be crossing the country by herself.
One does what one must do. My mother's older sister went to work at Sears when she was fourteen. Sixty-hour week.
In the next few days I would learn, viewing the events from the perspective of the present, that Andrea King was an intricate and complex young woman — less sophisticated than Biddy and yet more experienced than my oldest, who is now a professional woman with an eighteen-year-old daughter of her own.
Then all I did was to consider my options, as we would say now, and decided that I would leave without uttering a word. Pickup searched and rejected. "No enemy vessels in this area, sir. Should I pass on to the next search quadrant?"
"Roger. Proceed as indicated."
I signaled for my check. Pay for the second cup of coffee and leave.
"Your husband in the service?"
Startled, she glanced around, uncertain that I was speaking to her.
"He was on the Indianapolis."
A sentence of death. No wonder the terrible pain in her soft blue eyes.
She nodded, accepting my sympathy. "I hope he died on the ship, before the sharks got to them."
"What did he do?" Navy talk to cover the awkwardness and the sorrow. Somehow my intentions became, if not completely honorable, at least more respectable than they had been.
"Radar/tech/first. He said that electronics training" — she reached into her purse — "would guarantee a job after the war. Even better than civil service." She opened a cheap wallet to show me his picture. A husky towhead in high school graduation pose. "He was only nineteen."
"Two years ahead. I was a junior when I married him. The nuns said we were too young." She shrugged her shoulders. "Maybe we were. I don't know."
Just barely legal age. In some states. Probably had not graduated from high school. Pregnant?
"I'm sorry." What else could I say?
"What kind of plane did you fly?"
It was my turn to be startled. How did she know that I was a pilot?
"Hellcat. What ship?"
She raised an auburn eyebrow. The Big E was a legend. "Lieutenant?" I spread my hands in fake humility. "Gold oak-leaf type. Silver one when my reserve term is up next year."
Hope that impresses you, kid.
She smiled and Tucson disappeared for a couple of moments. "Impressive."
I wanted to tell her everything. She would understand. I hated the killing and the dying. I missed my friends who had crashed into the Pacific — Saipan, Leyte, Yap, all those other places that had even now blurred in my memory. But I also missed the roar of engines, the surge of power as my Grumman lifted off the deck, the sky dark with our fleets of planes, the excitement of battle, the triumph of return, the fierce yank of the arresting gear as I touched down on the deck, then the horror of counting noses and vacant bunks.
"A trip across the country before you settle down?"
"And begin to grow old." Did she read minds?
"Real old-timer." She smiled again; her teeth were fine and even, like her delicate facial bones. She was a natural beauty, needing neither makeup nor expensive clothes to strike at your heart.
"The war made us all grow up too soon." I pushed aside my plate of soggy pancakes. "I wish ... I don't know what I wish."
Excerpted from "The Search FOR Maggie Ward"
Copyright © 2018 Andrew M. Greeley Enterprises, Ltd..
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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