A Bottle of Champagne Redux

On May 4, I was to turn in a written piece for critique by my class. Hmmm, I already have something; it’s fairly polished. I could add a bit more and use that. Hah, way to shortcut several hours of homework. Except. Not.

Five or six hours of additional research, more rewriting, adding bits, creating a few new characters and turning more of the exposition into dialogue, I have Revision #1. Which, now that I’ve gotten comments back, will be updated and expanded to Revision #2 in the coming weeks. One change I’ll definitely be making is to use a lighter hand with the foreshadowing,. I also plan to expand the scene between Helen and Ronnie at the shipyard. I hope you enjoy the work in progress. What do you think of the changes? Do you have suggestions on how to make it stronger? I would love to hear your thoughts.

The Champagne Bottle

It was a warm June evening. Helen came home from work, sat down at the small table in the kitchenette, took her shoes off. It had been non-stop at work since the troops landed in France. She was still sitting, rubbing her feet when the phone rang, the operator asking to put through a call from Mr. Sarth. Helen shook as the call was connected. Ronnie’s parents didn’t call often, usually only when they had news they wanted to share. Only problem was, news could be good or bad. She was still shaking when she hung up the phone. Ronnie was coming home.

The door opened and Margie came in, still wearing her work uniform from the coffee shop.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Margie exclaimed.

Helen looked up, stunned. “He’s coming home. After more than two years, never knowing if I’ll see him again, he’s coming home! That was Ronnie’s pa. They got a telegram. Ronnie’s sailing home on the USS Warrington.” Her eyes were filling, threatening to overflow.

“I might even get to see him for a few minutes. His ship’ll be in the Navy Yard for repairs next month.”

Margie wrapped Helen in a huge bear hug. “Gosh! I sure wish Patty was home to hear this. She’ll be so happy for you, honey. We’ve gotta make a real special dinner to celebrate this weekend.”

Helen told Margie how Mr. Sarth had explained that Ronnie’s orders were for a last tour of duty that would take him to Virginia, Trinidad, and then New York, finally into her arms and their future together. Before he left, Ronnie asked her if she’d wait for him and she told him yes. He was coming back to her. They’d be married; they’d start a family; maybe they’d even move to the country.

***

For the next few weeks she walked on air, when she wasn’t scared that something might happen to him before she saw him again. She could barely believe it. There wasn’t enough money for the fancy wedding she’d dreamed of years before, but as long as she could be with him she didn’t care. She’d been saving money since before he’d been overseas. She was proud of her work for the Coast Guard as a secretary and other than modest rent on her small, shared flat and a budget for groceries, she didn’t have many expenses.

Margie, Patty and she had a regular Wednesday “roomie’s” night, when they did each other’s hair, painted each other’s nails and listed to the radio. They’d met at the AWVS volunteer center, and found so many little things in common, including needing roommates. Now, they were a little family together, sharing their ups and downs, the little successes and failures, tips for hair-dos and how to make a favorite dessert recipe without sugar.

Patty looked over from the little two-burner stove, “When d’ya think that Destroyer will be in the Yards,” she asked? Patty had a high-pitched voice. A little abrasive, with a strong Queens accent. Helen was grateful (and guilty that she was grateful) that Patty was shy and didn’t talk much. Even though Helen loved her to pieces, that voice could get on her nerves.

“He should be there right around the middle of August.” Helen examined her nails. Marge had painted them a new color, Dragon’s Blood from Chen Yu. They’d gotten free trial sizes through the mail. It was a whole lot more vivid than her usual rose or pale pink. It would take some getting used to, she mused to herself. “I’m going to find out when from the OIC at the Station and try to get over to the Navy Yard to see him. Maybe I can bring him something special.”

“Oh,” Margie laughed, “like you’re not special enough?”

Helen had learned typing and steno in high school. Secretarial jobs paid better than the factory jobs many of her friends were taking in Brooklyn and the Battery. So many of the little luxuries weren’t available, and Helen was careful. Maybe she could spend some of her savings on a new Zippo lighter for Ronnie. Maybe even get the one with the Navy insignia on it, if it wasn’t too pricey. He’d written her a while back that the one he’d taken with him got lost.

Helen had been saving since she started working at the beginning of the war. Since she’d taken typing and steno in school, she’d managed to get a job at the Coast Guard harbor boat patrol station on City Island.  After a few passes from the men, they’d come to like and respect her. For her part, she kept a friendly but removed attitude. She didn’t want any of the men getting the wrong idea. Jobs like this were hard to come by, and she didn’t want any trouble. From the tiny apartment on East 71st Street, it could take over an hour to get there. Weekends, she volunteered at the Lenox Hill Settlement House and for the AWVH. She’d learned that staying busy was the best way to keep her mind off the fear of what could happen to Ronnie.

***

For the next few weeks, Helen pestered everyone at the Coast Guard station except for Commander Walsh for word of the USS Warrington, at least as much as she dared to. She asked if they’d receive any wires about its progress back to the U.S. by way of the Panama Canal. July passed, and in August, she found out that the ship had finally arrived in the Navy Yard for repairs.

Helen knocked on OIC Walsh’s door, holding a steaming cup of coffee. “Sir? I know it’s not usual, but could I…” her voice trailed off to nearly a whisper. OIC Walsh was intimidating most times. Helen rarely talked to him, and when she did, it was usually just to say “Yes, Sir.”

“Yes, Miss Dunne?” He didn’t look up from his stack of papers. His broad forehead furrowed and his eyes narrowed as he read whatever critically important paper he had at the top. “Come in. I’m just trying to make sense of my wife’s shopping list. Do you know what Olay Oil is?” Helen tried not to smile too broadly. Maybe OIC Walsh was just an ordinary man after all. Maybe he was like her father might have been if he’d lived.

“Well, Sir, one of the Stewards told me that the Warrington docked at the Navy Yard yesterday. My fiancé is assigned to it. I was, well, I am hoping I can get to the Yard to see him before he ships out again. He wasn’t granted shore leave, you see.”

“Warrington, eh? She’s a Somers-class Destroyer, isn’t she. Being rotated out of service, I heard. I suppose you want a day off? Well, go on, then. Take tomorrow and good luck trying to see him. The Yard is buttoned up tight and if he wasn’t given leave, it’s not likely you’ll even get a glimpse of him.”

“Oh, thank you, Sir! Thank you so much,” Helen realized she was still holding the cup, no longer steaming but still hot. “Here’s your coffee, Sir. And you can get Olay Oil at any druggist.” But OIC Walsh was already back to his papers, his attention taken away by something – perhaps another shopping list, but far more likely the harbor patrols that kept their city safe.

***

She travelled across the Brooklyn Bridge the next day to try to convince someone, anyone, to let her see Ronnie. Just a glimpse of him through the gates or seeing the ship he’d spent so many months on would be enough to know that he was safe and would be home to her soon. Straining to look through the fencing, she thought she saw his familiar, lanky frame walking across the yard toward one of the large buildings. She ran to the gatehouse and frantically pleaded with one of the guards to wave him over.

She blinked, and suddenly, he was standing right in front of her. Their hands wrapped around the chain link fence, their fingers touching. Helen noticed that Ronnie’s fingers were trembling. She guessed hers were, too. For a few moments, they just stared. Then, they walked together; on opposite sides of the fence, neither quite believing the other was there. Every now and then, their hands would twine through the fencing, wrapping together in wordless love and connection. There was so much to say, so much time had passed. They were nearly strangers again. His dark brown eyes took her in. She’d changed, but not too much. She was still the fresh-faced strawberry-blonde that had caught his eye three years earlier at the Jimmy Dorsey show at the pier. Her nose still tipped up just a tiny bit too much at the end, like a ski slope. He wanted to run his pointer down it and then tap the tip, grinning the whole time at some silly joke. Her hair was still a little too curly for the fashion, and flew everywhere in the breeze. All he could imagine was how soft that hair would be, and how good it would smell when they leaned close together for a kiss. He could gaze into those green-eyes forever. And soon, he promised himself, soon he would.

“How did you know we were here?” Ronnie asked.

“I have my sources”, Helen teased.

“I’m just glad you took a chance to come all the way to Brooklyn,” Ronnie said.


“He’s gotten so much more serious,” Helen thought. “I can’t even begin to imagine what he’s been through. I need to be patient with him. Not be too light-hearted too quickly.”

The little time they had with each other passed quickly.

“I’ll only be gone until the end of October,” Ronnie reassured her. “It’s just a quick trip to Trinidad and then home. We’ll stop at Norfolk overnight on the way down the coast. Hey! Why don’t we get married right away when I get back? We can just have a small ceremony at City Hall. My parents, your roomies and your aunt. Hey, know what? My buddies…they told me that the best place to get champagne is Sherry Wines & Spirits on 61st and Madison. That’s not too far from your place, right? Promise me that you’ll go there and get the best bottle of champagne to drink at our wedding.”

Helen left the Yards simultaneously floating on air and desolate that there hadn’t been more time together. She walked the long walk over the bridge back home, her joy at their upcoming reunion tempered with sadness that she’d had so few moments with him before he shipped out again.

***

“Helen, you are marrying such a romantic man!” Margie giggled with a knowing look in her eye. “You know, French champagnes are supposed to – you know, help the wedding night along.”

Patty looked mortified. She was very uncomfortable with any talk of marital relations.

But Margie kept going. “It’s French and it’s fizzy. Makes your head all dizzy and your body just melts.”

Helen raised her eyebrow at this. “Well, I did read about it once in a magazine, but I never tried it myself.”

The thought made Helen smile. Margie could be brash and a little uncouth, but her heart was as big as could be. And for all Patty’s shyness, she was smart and funny. They all fit each other, like puzzle pieces. She’d miss their little household. She wondered what would become of their friendships after she got married.

***

The next weekend, she took a walk over to Sherry Wine and Spirits, like Ronnie had asked. Margie and Patty had ooh-ed and ahh-ed, and Margie had ribbed her mercilessly. It was the place to buy fancy wine.

When she walked into the store the walls were covered in dark wood-paneling, and there was bric-a-brac scattered on the table tops with the wine bottles, making it appear that guests would be arriving for a party at any moment. It felt rich. It even smelled good, perfumed with a subtle, slightly smoky scent. The light was soft and muted, enough to see all the shapes and colors of the bottles, with none of the harshness of a store like the R.H. Macy store on 34th Street that had the bright glare of newness. This store felt and looked like the place to go for the best and the hard-to-find, and it seemed to embrace her. She left with a bottle of their finest. When she got home, she carefully put the boxed bottle into the cupboard. Every day, she promised herself, she would mark off another day passed until Ronnie came home.

The next month passed slowly. She hoped that since they were relatively close by, that she’d get at least one or two letters from him before he came home for good. In early September, she got a letter.

September 8, 1944

“My darling Helen,

I’m posting this to you from the shipyards in Norfolk. I don’t know when I’ll be able to write next. Maybe when we get to Trinidad. I wish I’d been able to take you dancing when I was in New York. I remember how much you love to dance. I hope you haven’t been dancing with any other fellas while I’ve been gone (ha ha).

It’s been real nice being out at sea in peaceful waters, not looking over my shoulder ever second wondering if there’d be some kamikaze appearing in the sky headed straight for us. That can make a guy jumpy, you know, especially if I’d been on an 18 hour shift and needed some sack time. I heard that there were some German U-Boats around, but they didn’t get this far south. Last thing I need on my last trip is to wind up captured by Gerries!

Some of the other guys have been talking about how some new houses are being built out on Long Island, with room for a yard where you could have a little garden for flowers, and maybe a dog. Do you like dogs? I’ve always wanted one, but we couldn’t keep one in our flat in Yorktown.
Well, I guess that’s enough of my going on and on for now. We’ll have loads of time to catch up when I get home.

Your most loving,
Ronnie

That evening, instead of a mark, she drew a little picture of a letter on the champagne bottle, and tucked the letter into the box, under the satin lining.

***

In mid-September, Helen was stranded for a week at the Coast Guard station, owing to a major hurricane that came up the East Coast from south of the Bahamas, wreaking havoc on the New Jersey shore, making landfall on Long Island. Luckily, the station had plenty of provisions, blankets and folding cots, so they were able to stay snug in the harbor patrol office. She was glad Ronnie was safe in the Caribbean now. Every day that passed was a day closer to when she’d see him again. At the end of that week, she marked off the seven days that had passed on the champagne bottle. She wrote a little note to slip into the lining of the box:

September 17, 1944


I think it will only be one more month until Ronnie comes home and we can drink this bottle of champagne. I can’t wait to be his wife, to make a life together. He’s my one true love.

It was a brisk October evening. Helen had come home from work, sat down at the small table in the kitchenette, and taken her shoes off. She was still sitting, rubbing her feet when the phone rang, the operator asking if she could put through a call from Mr. Sarth. Helen shook as the call was connected. Ronnie’s parents didn’t call often, usually only when they had news they wanted to share. Only problem was, news could be good or bad. She was still shaking when she hung up the phone.

1993: The young man pulled into the small gravel parking lot of the antique store in his pickup truck. He’d picked up a few odd boxes from Storage City, left behind in units that hadn’t been paid for. As he dropped the tailgate, something caught his eye: an unopened bottle of 1937 Piper-Heidseick Brut.

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6 Comments

Filed under Historical Fiction, Uncategorized

6 responses to “A Bottle of Champagne Redux

  1. Janet

    It has been a real pleasure watching the evolution of this story. The people are really taking shape now. You have a very authentic and engaging voice. More, more, more!

  2. I am LOVING getting to know these characters more. They are becoming more three dimensional. I feel like you are teasing me, Wendy. I NEED know what happens next. 🙂 I agree with Janet, more please!

    • Wow and thank you. High praise indeed, coming from an accomplished author. As mentioned to Janet, there’s definitely more, but it may take some time to show it. I’m cautiously optimistic that a short story (at least) or novella (yikes!) will be the end result.

  3. Ada Fitzpatrick

    This is a wonderful story, I want to know more about Helen and Ronnie! And a time jump??? Love! This is so great Wendy! I can’t believe I’ve discovered two friends who are blogging! This is too cool!

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