A Novel of World War II
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Because of the war, Santa Fe was dead. Hard, bleak times had come to the four-hundred-year-old town. Roosevelt had imposed a ban on travel for pleasure, the art collectors and tourists vanished and businesses were liquidated. Since the start, the able-bodied men, employees and proprietors had been drafted together. But the downturn had begun years before with the Great Depression and a series of dust bowl droughts, so those who could were siphoned away on Route 66 leading to dollar-an-hour war-effort jobs in California. The best you could make in Santa Fe was a quarter an hour, if there was work.
The W.P.A. which had fostered art in town and in the pueblos, had been disbanded, leaving the artists and others floundering in a dried-up market. Melo and Senio lied about their ages and joined the National Guard.
But the climate, the clean dry mountain air and dazzling light remained unchanged. Artists and consumptives alike both found New Mexico to be an enchanting retreat, glorying in the vastness of the open spaces. They loved the purple mountains and the sparse population. When times were hard, Santa Fe was advertised nationally as a spa, a rejuvenating, four-season destination.
And a quiet place to spend a war.
Jerry had been right. Santa Fe was an invigorating small town and calm, if one overlooked the logjam on Palace Avenue and the vociferous disagreements on the Plaza. But it was a poor town and homes sat vacant, so much so that Phyllis had no difficulty finding her place. And she was informed to expect a Western welcome--a bienvenida party until dawn, inviting the whole town, mixing all age groups, all levels of economic strata, the three dominant cultures, and adding a few more. Phyllis, the key in hand, was ready for revelry. And she intended to throw the party herself.
Because the irresistible Western cool blue light brought the dazzling vistas as well as people into clear focus, 100 or so European and American artists stayed to ride out the difficult times. Also staying, not leaving, were the eccentric remittance-men with their outside incomes who added considerably to the general fun-filled delirium. John Levert and his dude ranch played a part. Diversity and eclecticism ruled. The wilder the better, the more the merrier. In a small town, you made your own fun.
And there was the Code of the West: Never ask a fellow where he's from. Always treat Miss Kitty like a lady. A man's handshake was his word. People were taken at face value. What Phyllis could have done in Dawson Creek, she would do here--she would rise above her tatty family and rule the town like a redheaded queen. No longer would Mum remind her to remember her place in the scheme of society. She'd fashion a new level of being, one with Bohemian risky delights. Here, she had carte blanche to re-fashion herself; and if she went too far, well, she could always pack up and leave as others had done.
Meanwhile, from her first night in Santa Fe onwards, she felt refreshed by the cool air, and she saw herself reborn, aristocratic, clever and a poignant widow with means.
She was buoyed because it was so different from West Palm Beach and the insufferable weather. She figured that avoiding Anissa would be a cinch because she was prepared for a more playful and open life. Anissa was a God-bothering, teetotaling, pamphlet-carrying fanatic and Phyllis was the "It Girl." How could they ever possibly cross paths except dead center on the Plaza?
As she pushed through the hotel's north doors, the sounds of Glenn Miller's rendition of Along the Santa Fe Trail sifted down the corridor. The song had become the anthem of the place; and for all she knew, Glenn Miller kept horses in a Territorial house on the Santa Fe Trail like so many of the "lungers" from the Sunmount T.B. Sanatorium.
Phyllis asked Jerry, "Does he live here too?"
"No, not Glenn Miller, but if we didn't let them play it on the jukebox, there'd be mayhem."
"I like it. It makes me feel dreamy," Phyllis said. "Where do you want me tonight?" She fit in, looking like a longtime native, wearing a fiesta blouse and tight dungarees with the concho belt she bought in Albuquerque. Jerry had said she could be a hostess, provide conversation and meet new people. He meant "shill."
"Where did all the Harvey Girl Guides go?" she asked. The Fred Harvey group was famous for their intelligent women guides to accompany and inform tourists regarding the art and culture of the Indians living in the Southwest. The Harvey Girls were paid very well, more than the men drivers at times. The hotel had framed photos of the "girls" in their concho belts and Navajo velvet blouses standing alongside the open touring cars.
"Most of them went home and joined the Red Cross." The hotel concession still belonged to the Harvey Company. "No gas, no tourists, so no Harvey Girls."
"Will they return when the war is over?"
He shrugged his shoulders, not knowing.
"Sit over there in the corner," he told her and she winked at him. "I hereby pronounce you to be La Nueva Chica--The New Harvey Girl." She was to be as cordial and engaging as they had been and Jerry would pour her drinks. Within the first week she had been introduced to a large measure of local color.
Her house on Palace Avenue was near the Governor's Mansion. Hers was not a mansion, but it contained a respectable three bedrooms. The second day, thanks to Jerry, she befriended Gustavo, a one-name artist who penciled out an invitation list for her swinging, Me-Bienvenido Bash. Y'all come!
"Invite everybody! Big small, rich, poor, Texans and New Yorkers," he told her, allowing her to buy him another drink. "If they don't know who you are when they walk in, they sure as hell will know who you are when they try to walk out." He put her on to a still down in the barrio and instructed her to order several gallons of homemade rum.
"Tell the owner you'll pay in greenbacks," he counseled. Others bartered with chickens and automobile parts.
It pleased her to know that she had a new identity: she was an Anglo. "God made only three kinds of people for His planet, Indians, Spanish and Anglos, and most of them were Anglos." The Blacks, the Chinese, the Jews, the Europeans and Russians--Anglos one and all. She, La Nueva Chica, was welcomed in as a true member of the Cast of Characters at La Fonda bar before the end of the week. If you were a Gringo, that was not so good. Guëro even less.
She anticipated that, on his off-night, Jerry would ask if he might stop by her place with some housewarming Scotch.
By the time she greeted his knock at the door her passion had been simmering and she offered him what he'd come for. Her lust was contagious. Not overly surprised by this, he sank into her kisses, eating and being eaten by her, weakened and unable to pull out. The Scotch was still in its gift carton, but she wanted him first; not yet the clinking glasses and toasts.
He followed her to her bedroom with a growing hard-on and she made love to him on the master bed, which she had doused with perfume.
Fifteen minutes later, standing, he pulled on his shirt first, then his trousers while eyeing her tangled in the sheets. She, in turn, was assessing him. Her hair was still in place.
"Have you had many women before?"
"Not many," he said. "No."
"Can you try again?"
He leaned down and kissed her lips. "Later," he said.
"Were you still a virgin in the seminary?"
"No, there was one woman, when I was eighteen. She was older than me. She had plans for her life that did not involve a teenager."
"But don't you want to make up for lost time?" She rose out of bed and stood before him, soft flesh, silky to the touch, yearning. "You can make love to me any way you wish. I like it all."
"I'm out of your league," he said and continued pulling on his clothes. "But I'll take you out for posole--it's a local, traditional dish."
"You can't be serious?" she said. Tentatively and gently, keeping her at bay, he helped her dress by fastening her brassiere, teasing her with pairs of kisses on her shoulders, two on each side, then around again. Assuaging her.
The sun was close to setting. Taking her arm, he walked her down Palace Avenue and across the Plaza to a small family-run restaurant catering to hungry travelers, a place where he was lovingly greeted by the dueña. Next, he introduced Phyllis as a newcomer and she received a very warm abrazo. They sat at a corner table and with the others in the restaurant, ordered the specialty of the house, or rather, Jerry ordered it.
Posole took some explaining, he said. "We call it underwater popcorn. It cooks for hours to make the rich broth of pigs' knuckles, pork and red chile. Very nourishing."
"Don't they have wine?" She took a small revolting bite and paused, trying to assess what it might be.
"Sorry, Babe, no wine."
Phyllis looked displeased. "This tastes like lunch, not dinner."
"Look, there is something I've been needing to tell you. Don't expect more Scotch," he said. "The Scotch at the bar is reserved for VIPs. It's not a day-to-day drink. I broke every rule bringing you some."
"It's just policy."
He'd cut her off. At the bar and in bed. She could feel her pale skin fire livid. After he dropped her off at her house with a careful kiss on the cheek, she tore through the box to the Scotch, poured herself a belt and started obsessing to herself in the bathroom mirror. She was not the sort of woman to be denied anything. The next evening at five, she debated even going to the La Fonda bar. What was next? Beer? Well, she took her beer at room temperature, a northern sweater-clad temperature.
The historic adobe inn sat at the true end of the Old Santa Fe Trail where since the 1609s there had always been a fonda, an eating house, and as far as Phyllis knew, La Fonda was the only place in town to go to be seen. Still owned by the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe Railroad and run by the Fred Harvey Company since 1929, the requirement for gentlemen to wear coats had been let slide and now the only requirement was for "reasonable" social habits, which the unruly artists in town pushed to the limit. The old timers called it The Harvey House with a certain reverence even though wartime rationing had cut into Fred Harvey's meticulous high standards and his methodically trained Harvey Girls had now been sent to Albuquerque to meet the troop trains. In Santa Fe, the classy "all-white" waitresses were now replaced by local Hispanic and Indian girls in colorful skirts and blouses who staffed the patio and dining room, a welcome switch from the 1880s. In Santa Fe, no form of segregation existed in this diverse community.
So, she stopped by La Fonda just to be generous and to allow Jerry a second chance. When she stood near the low entry wall marking the bar, he looked up and grinned, evidently completely oblivious to the slights he'd caused. Coming closer, he gave her hand a secret squeeze then selected the best seat and brought over a fleshy man, pulling out a chair for him. "This is Adrien--he's a most interesting Dutchman."
She looked squarely into Jerry's eyes and nodded that he owed her a drink, now and not later and that it would be on-the-house. He nodded yes. "I know he will find you charming."
She was warm to the middle-aged man, showering fascination on him, all the while watching Jerry out of the corner of her eye.
Adrien Hackman, the old China Hand, had learned his English with the missionaries in China. He'd done his French in The Foreign Legation in Shanghai and had picked up Mandarin with a smattering of Japanese. He had worked alongside his father running barges of oil and gasoline up and down the Yangtze. By the time the Japanese had taken Manchuria and set up the Puppet Government in the port cities of China, the Hackman family picked up stakes and Adrien moved his wife and two daughters to the safety of the high desert.
"The embargo shut us down," Adrien explained to Phyllis. "The Japs arrested the rest of the Dutch in Java, seizing their petrol."
"Before Pearl Harbor?"
"Of course, everybody was wise to what they were up to. The Americans were amassing a fleet to protect their trade routes, but it took the yellow buggers no time to ruin your Navy and crush your Air Corps and overrun the entire Pacific. They sent as many planes to bomb Darwin as they sent to Pearl Harbor--hundreds at a time."
Phyllis' eyes widened. He made it sound very dangerous and she leaned forward after a quick glance in Jerry's direction. "How frightful!"
"Indeed. Your MacArthur actually saved the Aussies, and they adore him. Now he's even managed to get the Philippines back," he reiterated. "You knew, didn't you, that the Japs had been lobbing torpedoes at Sydney and Brisbane from the start. When MacArthur moved down, they stopped." She'd known none of this and she noted that he seemed to think that she was American.
"It's hard to put the pieces together when it comes in bits and snatches," she said, thickening her brogue.
"That's right, you’re a Scot," he said and she smiled.
"So when did you come to New Mexico?" Phyllis asked him, veering away from the war. She'd been talking to him for a good twenty minutes before Jerry set a bourbon and soda in front of her and turned to wait on other tables. He was holding to the lousy no-more-Scotch policy. She sniffed at it and at her first taste slammed it back on the table, refusing to touch it.
"Smells like vomit," she announced.
Meanwhile, Adrien continued to talk. "I've been here waiting things out for several years. My wife and I had to get out of China anyway or get locked in prison camp. It feels quite safe here, but I'll be damned if I know what we're going to do when it's all over. My daughters need to learn more about their home country, Holland."
"Is your wife here?" she asked him, scanning the room for Jerry again. The ruddy-faced Dutchman took a sip of bourbon from his highball glass, and he shook his head.
"My wife's home, tending to her victory garden, I suppose. I give myself a little treat when I come into town. We're about fifteen miles north. In the Nambe Valley."
"I do hope that you will bring your wife and come to my Bienvenido Party. I'm throwing myself a bash." Later, Phyllis checked and found that he--but not the wife--had been on Gustavo's list all along. When Adrien rose to take his leave, she tugged at the shoulder of her turquoise blouse to show more shoulder and wished him well, reminding him again of her party.
"We may not have the petrol for driving twice in the same week," he said. "But I'll give it a good try and if I fail, I hope you'll ride out to the country with a friend. Half of the town lives to the north where we bask in plenty with our horses, pigs and large gardens. It's quite beautiful. It might remind you of your own estates."
"How lovely," she said, the word estates pulsing its way into her memory.
Since she'd rented her place, she learned (because she asked) she needed a pair or two of blue dungarees, a couple of cowboy shirts, and a large brimmed Western hat. Once she was completely outfitted, she looked like she should be herding cattle. On the other hand, she wasn't keen on that broomstick Navajo look either. She was more appealing in pearls than hammered Indian silver.
"Is there a place where one can buy a dress? A simple dress?" she asked Jerry, fidgeting with her clothes now that the Dutchman had left.
"You didn't bring any?" He seemed surprised. "There's Henkel's on the Plaza."
"Did I not tell you that all my luggage--the trunks, the cases--were all stolen?" He looked surprised. "I must have forgotten," he shrugged.
"Well, what I need you to know is that this damned American whisky smells like dog vomit."
"Blame it on the war."