At the wide circular fountain where Court Street joined Dexter Avenue, I leaned against the railing and shook my unruly hair to get the water out. A few soggy automobiles motored up the boulevard and streetcars clanged past while I considered whether to just chuck my stockings and shoes into the fountain rather than wear them wet. Then I thought, Eighteen, in twenty-six days, and put the damn things back on.
Properly clothed, more or less, I went up the street toward the Red Cross's new office, set among the shops on the south side of Dexter. Though the rain was tapering off, the sidewalks were still mostly emptyfew witnesses to my dishevelment, then, which would make Mama happy. She worries about the oddest things, I thought. All the women do. There were so many rules we girls were supposed to adhere to, so much emphasis on propriety. Straight backs. Gloved hands. Unpainted (and unkissed) lips. Pressed skirts, modest words, downturned eyes, chaste thoughts. A lot of nonsense, in my view. Boys liked me because I shot spitballs and because I told sassy jokes and because I let 'em kiss me if they smelled nice and I felt like it. My standards were based on good sense, not the logic of lemmings. Sorry, Mama. You're better than most.
Some twenty volunteers had gathered at the Red Cross, most of them friends of mine, who, when they saw me, barely raised an eyebrow at my state. Only my oldest sister, Marjorie, who was bustling round with pamphlets and pastries, made a fuss.
"Baby, what a fright you look! Did you not wear a hat?" She attempted to smooth my hair, then gave up, saying, "It's hopeless. Here." She handed me a dish towel. "Dry off. If we didn't need volunteers so badly, I'd send you home."
"Quit worryin'," I told her, rubbing the towel over my head.
She'd keep worrying anyway, I knew; she'd been fourteen when I was born, practically my second mother until she married and moved into a house two blocks awayand by then, of course, the habit was ingrained. I looped the towel around her neck, then went to find a seat.
Eleanor Browder, my best friend at the time, had saved me a spot across from her at a long row of tables. To my right was Sara MayfieldSecond Sara, we called her, Sara the First being our friend serene Sara Haardt, who now went to college in Baltimore. Second Sara was paired with Livye Hart, whose glossy, mahogany-colored hair was like my friend Tallulah Bankhead's. Tallu and her glossy dark hair won a Picture-Play beauty contest when we were fifteen, and now she was turning that win into a New York City acting career. She and her hair had a life of travel and glamour that I envied, despite my love for Montgomery; surely no one told Tallu how long her skirts should be.
Waiting for the meeting to start, we girls fanned ourselves in the airless room. Its high, apricot-colored walls were plastered with Red Cross posters. One showed a wicker basket overflowing with yarn and a pair of knitting needles; it exhorted readers, "Our boys need SOX. Knit your bit." Another featured a tremendous stark red cross, to the right of which was a nurse in flowing dress and robes that could not be a bit practical. The nurse's arms cradled an angled stretcher, on which a wounded soldier lay with a dark blanket wrapped around both the stretcher and him. The perspective was such that the nurse appeared to be a giantessand the soldier appeared at risk of sliding from that stretcher, feet first, if the nurse didn't turn her distant gaze to the matter at hand. Below the image was this proclamation: "The Greatest Mother in the World."
I elbowed Sara and pointed to the poster. "What do you reckon? Is she supposed to be the Virgin Mother?"
Sara didn't get a chance to answer. There was a rapping of a cane on the wooden floor, and we all turned toward stout Mrs. Baker, in her steel-gray, belted suit. She was a formidable woman who'd come down from Boston to help instruct the volunteers, a woman who seemed as if she might be able to win the war single-handedly if only someone would put her on a boat to France.
Excerpted from Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Fowler. Copyright © 2013 by Therese Fowler. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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