It had been two years, four months and nine days since Jack left for Europe. Charlotte puckered her lips in the mirror, carefully applying the cinnamon red lipstick that she had purchased at Woolworth’s that morning. All of her extra spending money that week went to acquiring new lipsticks. She counted nine new ones since Monday. Charlotte justified the money to herself in the odd way she often did – how was she to know what her mood would be by five o’clock on Friday?
Jack would be home in one hour.
Taking her middle finger she opened her mouth wide, wiping away the lipstick that had settled into the corners. Her stomach flipped. She toyed with the idea of leaving. After all it was Mah Jong night. She could be at Martha’s house in under ten minutes— they would all be there, Gladys, Peg, Theresa. None of them had been able to stop marveling at Martha’s brand new yellow Formica kitchen table. Charlotte was even in awe of the way the chairs slid so effortlessly across the new linoleum floor. Her friends’ experiences had taught her that her life would no longer be the same after tonight. The question was, did this frighten or excite her? She’d been trying to figure that out all day.
Martha, the eternal pessimist, told her not to get too excited. She reminded Charlotte of how Jane’s husband Fred came home last summer, but now isn’t right in the head. No one talks about the grenade that went off next to him in the foxhole. The man who embodies Fred sits on Jane’s sunporch all day long regardless of the weather, drinking whiskey straight from a bottle. No one can get through to him and at night he lays in the bed next to Jane, crying, unable to sleep. Jane’s so frightened, but she doesn’t know what to do. Martha says that Jane wishes he had never come home. Jane told Martha that reading the letters Fred sent her during the war makes her feel closer to him than talking to him at the dinner table.
Charlotte played with the red ribbon in her hair. She had already tried on the green one. She thought of twisting them together, but didn’t want to look like a candy cane waiting to be licked. On an impulse she let her hair fall down around her shoulders, but that felt too raw and sensual for this meeting – that was something left for the bedroom. She paced and paced. Her second glass of Sherry was nearly empty.
Jack’s last letter lay open on the nightstand. For the fourth time today she picked it up and read it.
“Charlotte my love,
We’re deep into Germany now – lord knows exactly where we are. The days are short and the nights are cold. We really don’t have the right gear for the approaching winter. Rumors are flying that this mess might end come spring, and our division may be one of the first sent home. I can’t tell you how that hope keeps me going. I fall asleep each night with the thought of holding you in my arms, your warm body pressed against mine. It’s a sad thing to see a grown man cry my love, but cry I do. With God and luck on my side I’ll be home by Memorial Day.
Yours always and forever
Charlotte held the letter to her lips, implanting the print of her lipstick against the back of the envelope. There it rested along with eight other prints in varying hues of red. A rogue tear crept out of her eye and plummeted down her cheek. All of her waiting was coming to an end.
Jack would be home in forty-five minutes. Charlotte attempted to clean the living room once again. She arranged and rearranged all of Jack’s favorite magazines on the coffee table. She had stopped the subscriptions when he left, knowing money would be tight and every cent counted. But as soon as she heard his troop was coming home she contacted National Geographic and Time and signed Jack McGrath up for another annual subscription. She was so excited to prove to him that nothing had changed.
Charlotte approached the mirror again. How had she changed since she last saw Jack? She knew she had lost weight – how could she not with her budget being so tight? Butter and sweets became luxury items, just like they had in her childhood during the depression. Charlotte tried to admire her lanky body, but felt ugly at the sight of her bones poking out across her chest and her curves greatly diminished. She hoped Jack wouldn’t find her unattractive. Jack had once told her how her eyes were like Hershey Kisses, deep and brown. She had told him that his shined like blue topazes, because she couldn’t think of a candy resemblance.
He would be home in twenty-five minutes. Charlotte continued to look at herself in the mirror. Regardless of her body, she was very happy with her new crimson dress. She admired the way it flared around her knees and the way it cut appropriately, yet seductively, around her breasts gathering at the sides and pulling up to tie around her neck. Lana Turner, look out, she giggled to herself. Charlotte looked down at her empty glass and decided to head back downstairs for third refill.
She thought about the many subtle things she didn’t miss. She remembered Jack’s annoying habit of drinking milk from the glass jug. She wondered how on earth his strict mother could have tolerated such behavior. The toilet seat would be up more often than down now. She’d have to remember that when she got up to tinkle in the middle of the night and didn’t have her glasses on. She thought of the laundry that would double and all the extra groceries she would need to buy. Her anxiety built as she wondered if Jack would make her quit her job the way Herb had made Gladys quit hers. “No wife of mine will have to toil for a dollar,” Herb had said, not realizing that working gave Gladys purpose and joy. Charlotte didn’t want to quit her job at the law firm. She had finally gotten her typing up to forty words per minute.
She heard the whistle of the four-fifty westbound train out of New York. Her husband was on that train. In a matter of minutes he would be at her door. Charlotte flew around the house, cleaning up persistent dustballs and checking her makeup once again. She took a big whiff of the tuna casserole in the oven and tried to imagine what that would smell like to Jack who had been living off Army rations for so long.
The doorbell rang, startling Charlotte. Why on earth would he ring the doorbell? Perhaps it was someone else? It was rather late in the evening for a sales call. Mr. Harvey, the new Fuller Brush representative did have an awful sense of timing often coming at dinnertime. Charlotte cautiously opened the door but it was Jack, her husband, who was standing before her. His sallow body appeared weathered beyond her expectations, and his once luscious brown hair was now metal gray. She teared up at the thought of the joyous years that had been stripped from their lives.
“May I come in?” he asked in the same distant tone that Mr. Harvey would have used. Charlotte shook as a wave of anger and sadness coursed through her. She wanted to scream, ‘No, leave my house and bring me back my Jack!’ What did allowing him in mean? Would he be like Fred, an empty shell? She couldn’t bear to be tied down to a man with no passion for life. But this was her husband, her Jack. She thought back to the time they spent dating, all the thrilling times at the dances – what a marvelous dancer he was. He still had his legs; at least they could still dance.
“Of course, come in,” she answered politely. Charlotte opened the door all the way and stepped to the side allowing him to enter. Jack lumbered in, shrugging his pea green rucksack to the floor. Charlotte worried he would collapse on the spot he appeared so weak and feeble, but then Jack turned to her as though the weight of the world had just slid off his shoulders. As if the years in the army melted from his body with the letting go of the rucksack. Jack’s face began to brighten and Charlotte envisioned her Jack re-entering this war ravaged body. His eyes caught a bit of the entryway chandelier and she saw the blue glitter that was always there.
“Come here babe!” he exclaimed pulling her tight. “God how I’ve dreamed of those beautiful red lips,” he cried as tears flushed his face. Charlotte’s tears muddied her mascara; ruining the makeup she had spent all evening perfecting.
“Welcome home Jack,” she sobbed as she fell into his waiting arms. “Welcome home.”