RITA LAFFERTY’S LUCKY SUMMER
The summer I was sixteen I had my first real job, selling pastries in Jojo’s Bakery on Broadway, near Sullivan Square. Over the machine that dispensed tickets was a hand-lettered sign: Take a Number. Like my Aunt Grace saying, “Take a card, take a card,” when she was going to do a trick or tell my fortune. Maybe the ticket machine was a lucky number machine, I liked to think. When I called out “seventeen” or “fifty-three” to the customers waiting their turn to be served, I half expected one of them to wave her ticket and shout “Bingo!” Nobody ever did, though. They’d be trying to shush their yammering kid or figuring out whether one pineapple cake could be sliced thin enough to feed eleven people.
It was hard work. On your feet all day and no goofing off; whenever the stream of customers thinned out Jojo would always find something for you to do in back, washing cookie trays or making up boxes. What I really wanted to do was work the pastry tube, but no chance of that.
Rita Lafferty, who worked at Jojo’s with me, fell in love that summer. Rita was thirty, though she didn’t look it. Her teeth were as bucked as though she’d spent her childhood opening tonic bottles with them. She lived with her mother over on Fosket Street. Mrs. Lafferty was forever calling up the bakery, trying to talk Rita into leaving early so she could run some errand for her. She’d even have made up the excuse that Rita was supposed to tell Jojo. Poor Rita didn’t know whether to be more afraid of her mother or of getting fired.
The best thing about Rita was her hair. It was reddish brown and so heavy and dense that even the awful hair nets we had to wear couldn’t squash it. Once she made me examine the roots to prove to me that the color came from God. Not that I’d suspected otherwise.
Rita’s boyfriend was a motorman on the Orange Line; he spent his working hours riding from Oak Grove to Forest Hills and back. They’d met in the Star Market, when he dropped a can of cream-style corn on her toe. He was a bachelor who lived alone in Magoun Square and cooked for himself. His name was Frank Hodges.
Rita limped around for a few days, smiling goofily whenever anyone asked how she’d hurt her foot. And then, the day Frank’s gift arrived at the bakery, she began to confide in me.
He’d sent it to apologize—possibly to head off a suit, though I didn’t suggest that to Rita: a large ceramic donkey with a clump of geraniums in each raffia saddle basket. “Isn’t it cunning?” she said. And how had Frank guessed that geraniums were practically her favorite flower?
“Maybe he thought they’d match your hair?” I offered. The donkey had a somewhat toothy expression, but I didn’t mention that to Rita, either.
“My hair’s not that kind of red. Still, to men red is red.”
“That’s what I mean,” I agreed, from my own extensive knowledge of men.
“He asked me out,” Rita went on, “when I called to thank him.”
“How did you know his number?”
She looked only a little sheepish. “I looked it up in the phone book. Well, I had to thank him, didn’t I?”
They went to the movies that weekend, and the next weekend, on a Sunday afternoon, to Fenway Park to jeer at Don Zimmer. Finally, Frank came around to the bakery. He turned out to be a better-looking man than you’d imagine Rita could catch, even with her great hair. Not tall, but plenty of muscles and so tan you’d have thought he spent every day stretched out on Revere Beach instead of inside a subway car. Maybe not quite as old as Rita, but it was hard to tell for sure.
“He seems nice,” I told her later, as we were bringing out trays of cream puffs. Rita only smiled. When she kept her mouth shut, she was surprisingly pretty. Especially after Frank came into her life. I began to notice things. She had nice breasts—we’d strip out of our nylon uniforms at the end of the day, the two of us crowded into the tiny john in back—and she had a kind of sexy smell about her, too. Not that she was sleeping with Frank, I was sure, but her excitement was there in her delicate sweat and in the new way she moved her body. She even talked back to Mrs. Lafferty once or twice when the old witch called, demanding to know how soon she’d be home.
Now I began to wonder why no man had noticed Rita before, why she had seemed so obviously virginal and fated to remain that way. Of course, there was the buck teeth. And she did tend to giggle, particularly in a crisis, and she fell all over herself agreeing with you, no matter what outrageous thing you’d said. Still, look outside the plate glass window onto Broadway: women walking by who are unmistakably married—someone once made love to them and planted babies in them—and how all that happened is a mystery. Arms puckered with fat now, gold teeth and false gold hair, voices like fishwives.
Frank started picking Rita up after work. He drove a yellow Corvette, only slightly dented. The car worried me a little, because I calculated what it must cost to keep up the payments and wondered whether there’d be enough left over to support a wife, let alone babies and a mother-in-law. They’d gone to Virgie’s, she’d tell me the next morning, or to Davis Square for a pizza.
“How come Frank is always available to pick you up?” I asked her. “Whether you work till 4:30 or 7:30 he always manages to be here.”
“He arranges his schedule around mine,” she said, gazing at the birthday cake display. For some reason the glass on that particular case makes a good mirror.
“How can he do that?”
She smiled, tucking a few wisps of hair into her hair net and letting the elastic snap. “He has a lot of seniority. He gets first crack at the work sheet.”
Well, I believed it if she did.
And then all at once it struck me that she was sleeping with him, after all. There were no more reports of what movie they’d seen, or what they’d had to eat at Virgie’s. If I asked her, she’d say, “Oh, I forget.” Rita was a terrible liar, no inventiveness, no acting ability. I imagined them in Frank’s steamy apartment, making love to the rattle of traffic in Magoun Square, and I feared for her soul.
Then Rita showed me the ring, her engagement ring. Frank had bought it downtown on Washington Street and made a very good bargain, she told me. Diamond solitaire, one-quarter carat, platinum setting. They planned on an October wedding, she said shyly.
I was happy for her. At least, I hoped, Mrs. Lafferty would have to start hewing and drawing for herself once in awhile.
The Saturday after Rita confided to me her wedding plans Frank failed to pick her up. Ordinarily I would have left her waiting in front of Jojo’s without giving it a thought, but that day she had the curse. Rita was afflicted with theatrical, extravagant menstrual flows, during which her body seemed bent on flushing out her entire blood supply. Since she looked a little shaky I lingered with her, watching for that sleek yellow vehicle to come zipping along from Magoun Square.
No Corvette. Rita twisted the engagement ring around her finger. A fidgety rain began to fall. It got to be 7:40, then ten of.
“What do you think I should do?” she asked me finally.
At that moment I spotted the Number 89 bus moving slowly in the traffic, heading west out of Sullivan Square. I grabbed her arm and pulled her across Broadway to the bus stop in front of the firehouse. “We’ll go over to Frank’s place and see what’s up. Maybe he’s sick,” I said.
“Shouldn’t we call first?”
I gave her an exasperated look. If she’d been in his bed every night for a month, did she have to call first before visiting him? “There won’t be another bus for forty minutes,” I said.
His apartment was a third floor walk-up over a sub shop. We rang his bell, and when there was no answer I pushed the street door open and we went upstairs, past bicycles and strollers on the landings.
“Which door is Frank’s?” I asked her.
She pointed it out, knowing she was compromised, but seeing no alternative. I guess she was grateful to have me take charge.
I knocked. We could hear staticky music from inside, but nobody came to the door. “Well, now what?”
Without saying anything, she dug around in her handbag and came up with the key.
For a bachelor Frank was neat as a pin, I’ll have to give him that. Everything was in place: plastic tablecloth on the table, sofa cover free of wrinkles.
As in a trance, Rita walked into the bedroom, and I came behind her. Frank was lying on the bed, out cold. The radio signal had shifted since he’d tuned it in. An empty bottle sat on the bed next to the radio.
“He drinks,” she breathed.
“Let’s go, Rita.”
“No, you go. I’ll stay with him.”
“Come on, Rita.” I pulled at her arm.
“No, it’s all right,” she said. I saw the buck teeth when she spoke. She didn’t giggle, even though it was a crisis, and she settled down to watch over him.
I think they got married, though I’m not sure. After I quit working at Jojo’s to go back to school I never heard from Rita, and I never ran into her on the street. Probably she and Frank moved to Stoneham or Billerica, the better to escape Mrs. Lafferty.
Elaine Ford has published five novels, including Missed Connections and Ivory Bright. Her story collection The American Wife won the 2007 Michigan Literary Fiction Award. New work appears in Chariton Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Your Genealogy Today, and Arkansas Review. Elaine’s work has been recognized by a Guggenheim Fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts grants. She is professor emerita at the University of Maine, where she taught creative writing and literature. Her website is: www.ElaineFordAuthor.com.