Time Enough for Champagne ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
The Saturday after Thanksgiving was a cold night in Boston but people were out celebrating anyway. Everybody was happy. Soldiers were on furlough, showing off their uniforms, flirting and dancing with the girls. Who would ever think the evening would turn out the way it did?
The tables were close together without much elbow room but nobody seemed to mind. A girl in a white evening gown with a big lipsticked smile and a camera passed among the tables and booths offering to take pictures. Only one dollar, please, payable in advance. Oh, well. What’s a dollar? You only live once.
Lorraine told Michael to order a bottle of champagne. The waiter brought it to the table in a bucket of ice, just like in the movies. He opened the bottle and filled the glasses, but when he started to fill Rosalie’s glass she smiled at him sadly and shook her head. “I’m only seventeen,” she said.
The picture girl stopped at the table and was going to take a picture of all three of them but Lorraine stopped her. “Just the two of us!” she said, moving closer to Michael and gripping his hand in hers and smiling her brightest smile.
Michael paid the dollar and wrote down his address so the picture could be mailed to him.
“This is so much fun!” Lorraine gushed. “I always wanted to come here!”
Michael smiled at Rosalie. “I hope you don’t mind the Coke,” he said.
“Oh, no!” Rosalie said. “I don’t want to get anybody in trouble.”
“There’ll be plenty of time for champagne later, when you’re older.”
Michael and Lorrain stood up and went out to the dance floor. The orchestra had just finished Moonglow and melded deftly into Imagination. Rosalie knew from the way Lorraine moved that she liked having people look at her. Her dress was expensive and lovely, a filmy sort of pale yellow, the perfect complement to her auburn hair and rosy skin. She might have been a movie star.
Rosalie felt a little self-conscious sitting at the table by herself, but when she looked around and saw that nobody was paying any attention to her, she took a deep breath and relaxed. She hated the black dress she was wearing but believed it was no worse than what a lot of the other girls were wearing. Not everybody can look like a movie star.
The number ended and Michael and Lorraine came back to the table, but before she sat down again Lorraine made Michael admire her ankle bracelet with her name engraved on it, for the third time already that night. Michael had given it to her as a gift on Thanksgiving night and she couldn’t stop admiring it. “Oh, it’s just the sweetest little thing I’ve ever seen!” she gushed.
Michael looked flushed and overheated. He was uncomfortable in crowds and didn’t like dancing, but he was a good sport usually willing to go along with whatever the crowd wanted. He offered to dance with Rosalie, but she declined. “I’m afraid I’m a horror on the dance floor,” she said.
The waiter brought another Coke for Rosalie and it was time to order dinner. Lorraine wanted roast beef and Michael a steak and Rosalie fried chicken. When the waiter went away with the order, Lorraine regarded Rosalie across the table.
“Thank goodness one of us inherited mother’s fashion sense,” she said. “That dress is unbelievably dowdy.”
“I know,” Rosalie said. “I hate it.”
“Then why did you wear it?”
“It’s the only thing I have that’s appropriate for a place like this.”
“I think she looks very nice,” Michael said.
“You think everybody looks nice, and compared to you, they do.”
“I’m wearing a new suit.”
“Yes, and it looks just exactly like your old one. It looks like something your father would wear.”
“Most of the men not in uniform are wearing dark suits,” Rosalie said.
“People are probably looking at Michael and wondering why he’s not in uniform.”
“You can’t say I didn’t try,” Michael said.
“Oh, yes, it was a tiny heart murmur, wasn’t it, dear, that kept you out of the service?”
“You know it was.”
“Did you pay the doctor to say you had a heart murmur so you wouldn’t have to go off to the bad old army and leave your poor little Lorraine behind?”
“Yeah, that’s it. You guessed my little secret.”
“I would so have liked to have gone stepping out on the arm of dashing war hero.”
“Why don’t you see if Robert Taylor is available?”
“I would marry Robert Taylor in an instant. All he has to do is ask me.”
“I think he’s already married to Barbara Stanwyck,” Rosalie said.
“Well, we’ll just have to get rid of little Barbara then, won’t we?”
“You’re forgetting one thing,” Michael said.
“You’re married to me.”
“Oh, yeah. That keeps slipping my mind.”
Michael lit a cigarette and blew smoke toward Lorraine, knowing she hated it.
“Put that cigarette out and let’s dance again,” she said.
“I don’t want to dance anymore. My feet hurt.”
Rosalie, seeing that Michael and Lorraine were headed for one of their fights, sought a change of subject by saying, “This is the first time I’ve ever been in a nightclub. It’s very exciting.”
“The first of many for you, I hope,” Michael said, lifting his glass and taking a big gulp of the champagne.
“Don’t drink too much of that stuff, dear,” Lorraine said. “You have to get us home safely, you know.”
“Yes, sir, captain, sir!”
The waiter brought the dinner and they began eating. The fried chicken was the best Rosalie had ever tasted. Lorraine picked around the corners of her plate and didn’t seem interested in eating.
“I’d hoped we could have a little talk tonight,” Lorraine said to Rosalie. “Just the two of us.”
“Well, now that mother’s dead and I’m paying all the bills, I see there’s not as much money as I thought. I’m afraid we’re going to have to economize.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re going to have to sell the house.”
“Sell the house! But why?”
“I just told you why. It’s too expensive to keep up and, besides, you can’t go on living there by yourself.”
“You’re a minor.”
“You’re going to have to move in with Michael and me.”
“But I don’t want to move in with Michael and you.”
“Well, I’m your legal guardian now and I’m making all the decisions until you’re of age.”
“Are you sure this is the time and place for this kind of a discussion?” Michael asked.
“Stay out of this, Michael! It’s none of your business!”
“But what about school?” Rosalie asked, on the point of tears. “I can’t keep going to Cleary High if I live with you and Michael. It’s twenty miles away!”
“You can transfer. There’s a lovely new school less than a mile from where we live.”
“I’m in my last year of high school. I’ll graduate in six months. I don’t want to transfer now.”
“Mother always let you have your way about everything.”
“What’s that go to do with anything?”
“She overindulged you because you were sickly as a baby and she thought you were going to die. You were her menopause baby. You were never supposed to happen. Well, mother’s not here anymore and I’m telling you that things are going to be different from now on.”
“I think that’s quite enough of that kind of talk,” Michael said. “We’re supposed to be having a good time.”
“Well, I had to tell her these things some time. I didn’t want her to go on thinking she could continue to live in mother’s big house by herself.”
“I’m afraid you’ve just spoiled the evening.”
“Doesn’t the house belong to me now?” Rosalie asked.
“It belongs to both of us.”
“I’ll get a job and pay the expenses on the big house until after graduation.”
“And what would you do?”
“I don’t know.”
“What exactly are your job skills?”
“I can read and write.”
“Who’s going to hire a dowdy seventeen-year-old girl with bad skin and unmanageable hair?”
“Yes, for a dollar an hour. I’m afraid that won’t do much good, when it comes to paying the heat bill and the electric bill, insurance and property taxes.”
“I can get a job as a waitress.”
“Nobody would hire you.”
“Don’t worry about it now,” Michael said to Rosalie. “We’ll think of something later.”
“I thought I told you to mind your own business, Michael,” Lorraine said. “When it comes right down to it, this isn’t any of your business at all.”
“Yes, I’m sure you’re right,” he said. “You always are.”
Rosalie was crying now. Her dinner was ruined. She pushed the plate away. She couldn’t eat another bite.
“I hope you’re proud of yourself, Lorraine,” Michael said. “Couldn’t this have waited until a more appropriate time?”
Lorraine stood up and threw down her napkin. “I’m going to the ladies’ room,” she said. She left the table and began making her way through the crowd. It was the last time Michael and Rosalie would ever see her alive.
A few minutes after Lorraine left, there was a scream on the far side of the room and then another scream louder than the first. The people drinking and eating stood up. The dancers stopped dancing. The orchestra stopped playing. Everybody turned toward where the screams had come from.
“Fire!” somebody yelled. “Fire! Fire! Fire!”
For a few seconds there was absolute silence and stillness and then people began moving wildly, unthinkingly. Some were turning around in circles, looking for a way out, not knowing what to do or which way to go.
Michael grabbed Rosalie by the wrist. “We’ve got to find Lorraine!” he screamed into her ear.
They began moving with the crowd. They were pushed from behind so consequently pushed those in front.
“Everybody calm down!” somebody yelled. “Just make for the fire exits!”
The lights went out. The far wall, fifty feet away, was illuminated by an eerie orange glow. The fire was making its way up the stairs from another part of the club. The crowd became a stampede. Those knocked to the floor never had a chance to stand up again.
Some of the fire exits were chained shut and wouldn’t open. People pushed helplessly against them but weren’t able to make them move. When they saw it was hopeless in one place, they moved on to the next one.
Michael held on to Rosalie’s wrist. The two of them managed to remain standing, pushed along helplessly by the crowd. Soon a door was opened in front of them, miraculously, like a gate into heaven, and they found themselves outside in the freezing air.
They stood there, dazed and gasping for air. There were about twenty other people who had made their way out with them. Most of the women were crying and screaming. The men stood helplessly, stunned into silence. Finally a man from the fire department came along and told them they would have to move as far away from the building as they could.
Other groups came out in other places, three or twelve or twenty or sometimes more at a time. They were all herded around to the other side of the building, away from the smoke and flames. Michael ran frantically from group to group, searching for any sign of Lorraine.
The next few hours were a hellish dream, punctuated by sirens, screams, billowing smoke, walls of flame, confusion, firetrucks, ambulances, men running back and forth. How could such a terrible thing be allowed to happen?
Casualties were heavy. Firefighters began bringing bodies out and laying them side by side on the street or on the sidewalk, until a temporary morgue could be set up. Police kept onlookers back until the proper time for identification.
Every time Michael went away and came back again to the spot where he had left Rosalie standing on the street corner, she asked him if he had spotted Lorraine yet, but she already knew by this time it was hopeless.
Six hours after the fire broke out, Michael found Lorraine’s body in a row of bodies on the sidewalk. Her face was covered, but he knew it was her by the ankle bracelet with her name engraved on it and by the yellow dress. He started to pick her up but a policeman stopped him.
“She’s my wife,” he said. “I have to take her home.”
“You have to leave her here for now until positive identification can be made,” the policeman said.
He wrote down Michael’s name and address, along with Lorraine’s name, and put a tag around her wrist with a number on it, indicating that she had been identified by a family member.
Hundreds of people attended Lorraine’s funeral, many of them curiosity seekers. They wanted to see the body but the casket was kept closed. Michael knew it’s what Lorraine would have wanted.
More than eight-hundred-thousand dollars came to Michael as Lorraine’s husband. He arranged with his lawyers for Rosalie to get half of everything, since the money came from her family, and, since she had no family left, he became her guardian and let her remain in her mother’s big house as long as she wanted. He brought her groceries a couple times a week and took care of paying all the bills. As for Lorraine, he hardly ever mentioned her name again.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp