November Night ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
The Saturday after Thanksgiving was a cold night but people were out celebrating anyway. America was one year into the war. Soldiers were on furlough, showing off their uniforms, flirting and dancing with the girls. Cars lined the streets. People called to each other and waved. Everybody was happy and hopeful. Who would ever think the evening would turn out the way it did?
Inside the club, 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.
At Lorraine’s behest, Gerald ordered 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 pour Linda’s glass she smiled and shook her head. “I’m underage,” she said.
“Are you sure?” the waiter asked.
“Last time I checked!” 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 Gerald and gripping his arm and smiling her brightest smile.
Gerald paid the dollar and wrote down his address so the picture could be mailed to him.
“This is so much fun!” Lorraine gushed. “I’ve always wanted to come here!”
Gerald smiled at Linda. “I hope you don’t mind the Coke,” he said.
“Oh, no! It’s perfectly all right.”
“There’ll be plenty of time for champagne later, when you’re older.”
Gerald and Lorraine stood up and went out to the dance floor. The orchestra finished Moonglow and melded deftly into Imagination. Linda knew that Lorraine, as always, was enjoying having people look at her. Her dress was expensive and lovely, a diaphanous, pale yellow, the perfect complement to her auburn hair and peaches-and-cream complexion. She might have been a movie star a long way from Hollywood.
Linda herself hated the black dress she was wearing. It was the best she owned, but it made her body look lumpy, like an old lady on her way to church. It was the kind of dress that Lorraine would never be seen dead in.
She tugged at her front and smoothed her lank brown hair on both sides of her head. She believed that people were looking at her as she sat there all alone, but the truth was that everybody around her was having a good time and nobody even noticed her. She let out her breath in a long exhalation and relaxed the clenched muscles in her abdomen and legs.
The number ended and Gerald and Lorraine came back to the table, but before she sat down again Lorraine made Gerald admire her ankle bracelet with her name engraved on it, for the third time already that night. Gerald 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.
Gerald looked tired and pale. He was uncomfortable in crowds and didn’t like dancing, but he was a good sport usually willing to go along with whatever Lorraine wanted. He offered to dance with Linda, but she declined. “I’m afraid I’m a horror on the dance floor,” she said.
The waiter brought another Coke for Linda and it was time to order dinner. Lorraine wanted roast beef and Gerald a steak and Linda fried chicken. When the waiter went away with the order, Lorraine regarded Linda across the table.
“Thank goodness one of us inherited mother’s fashion sense,” she said. “That dress is unbelievably dowdy.”
“I know,” Linda 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,” Gerald 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,” Linda said.
“People are probably looking at Gerald and wondering why he’s not in uniform.”
“You can’t say I didn’t try,” Gerald 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,” Linda said.
“Well, we’ll just have to get rid of little Barbara then, won’t we?”
“You’re forgetting one thing,” Gerald said.
“You’re married to me.”
“Oh, yeah. I’m inclined to forget.”
Gerald lit a cigarette and blew smoke toward Lorraine, knowing how much she hated it.
“Put that cigarette out and let’s dance again,” she said.
“I don’t want to dance again just yet. My feet hurt.”
“Must you always be an old fuddy-duddy?”
Seeing that Gerald and Lorraine were about to engage in more bickering, Linda sought to change the subject by saying, “This is my first time ever in a night club. Isn’t it exciting?”
“The first of many for you, I hope,” Gerald 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.”
“Aye, aye, captain, sir!”
The waiter brought the dinner and they began eating. The fried chicken was the best Linda had ever tasted. Lorraine picked around the corners of her plate and didn’t seem at all interested in food.
“I’d hoped we could have a little talk tonight,” Lorraine said to Linda. “Just the two of us.”
“It’s about money, I’m afraid, that most hated of topics. Now that mother’s dead and I’m paying all the bills, I’m trying to plan ahead for the future and I see there isn’t as much money as I thought there was. I’m afraid we’re going to have to economize.”
“Can’t you wait for a more appropriate time to talk about this?” Gerald asked.
“I wasn’t addressing you, Gerald!” Lorraine said.
“Economize in what way?” Linda asked.
“Well, you’re not going to like this, but we’re going to have to sell mother’s house.”
“But why? It’s my home. It’s where I’ve always lived.”
“I’ve already told you why. It’s too expensive to maintain with just you living in it. I mean, really, how many high school girls do you know who have a big nine-room house all to themselves.”
“Mother said right before she died that she wanted me to be able to go on living in the house through the end of high school and for as long as I wanted.”
“I know, dear, but, as you know, mother was never very practical.”
“We don’t have to talk about it now,” Gerald said. “We’ll work something out.”
“As I’ve already said, Gerald, none of this concerns you!” Lorraine said.
“But if we sell the house,” Linda said, “where am I going to live?”
“You’re can move in with Gerald and me.”
“But I don’t want to move in with Gerald and you. It’s too far away from school. How will I get back and forth?”
“I’ve already looked into all that. There are buses running every day. It would be a simple matter of a twenty-minute bus ride each way.”
“But I have my own home. I don’t want to live with you and Gerald.”
“Don’t you think that’s a selfish attitude? After all, I’m paying all the bills. I’m your guardian and I have to do what I think is best.”
“I’ll get a job and pay all the expenses on the house,” Linda said.
“You’re just a baby!” Lorraine scoffed. “What could you possibly do? Who would hire a high school girl with bad skin and unmanageable hair?”
“I can read and write.”
“So can everybody else. I’m afraid that doesn’t make you employable.”
“I can operate a babysitting service.”
“Yes, for fifty cents an hour. I’m afraid it takes more than that to run a household.”
“I’ll get the money somewhere!”
“Oh, please! You don’t know what you’re talking about! Do you think you’re going to find a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow?”
Linda began crying. Gerald gave her his handkerchief.
“Now see what you’ve done, Lorraine!” he said. “We came here to have a good time and now you’ve spoiled it for all of us.”
“I’m just trying to be practical. She’s not a child anymore. She needs to face reality and know where she stands in the scheme of things.”
“Maybe you and I need to face reality too,” Gerald said. “Where do we stand in the scheme of things?”
“Oh, you make me sick!” Lorraine said. “You always have to make everything about you, don’t you? I’m going to the ladies’ room.”
She threw down her napkin, stood up and faded into the crowd.
“I’m sorry about all this,” Gerald said.
“You didn’t do anything,” Linda said.
“She could have chosen a better time to bring up the subject of money.”
“It just took me by surprise, that’s all. I’m going to have to get used to idea of living somewhere else, I guess.”
“You must have some champagne,” he said, “underage or not. You need to at least taste it.” He took an empty water glass and filled it halfway and pushed it toward her. “If nothing else, you can look back on this night and remember it as the first time you tasted champagne.”
She smiled at Gerald, dried her remaining tears and gratefully drank the champagne.
The orchestra ended one number and began another. Gerald and Linda watched the swirl of dancers, what they could see of them, while they waited for Lorraine to come back.
What sounded like a woman’s scream came from far away, or maybe it wasn’t a scream at all; it could have been the laugh of a hyena. Not everybody heard it, but those who did turned their heads to see where it was coming from. Then there was another questionable scream and then another, closer this time and unmistakable. The musicians stopped played and the dancers stopped dancing. Those sitting stood up to get a better view.
“Fire! Fire! Fire!” someone screamed.
There was a lull then, a moment in which everybody stood perfectly still and silent. Then, all at once, people began moving, all at the same time, as if every living being in the place were controlled by some giant, unseen mechanism of pandemonium.
Gerald grabbed Linda’s wrist. “We’ve got to find Lorraine!” he screamed. “Which way to the ladies’ room?”
“I don’t know,” Linda screamed back, into his ear. “We’ve got to find the exit! Wherever Lorraine is, she’ll find her way out!”
With Gerald holding Linda’s hand, they began moving slowly through the crowd. Pushed violently from behind, they managed to stay on their feet. Others weren’t so lucky. Those who fell would never get up again.
“Everybody calm down!” a booming voice commanded. “Just make for the fire exits!”
The lights went out. The far wall, fifty feet away, was illuminated by an eerie orange glow. This was perhaps the most frightening sight of all. People panicked, lost whatever decorum they had, and began pushing blindly forward with no other thought than to save themselves.
Some of the fire exits were obscured behind curtains or fake palm trees while others were locked and wouldn’t open. People pushed helplessly against them to no avail. When they saw one door wouldn’t open, they moved on to the next one.
Gerald held tightly to Linda’s wrist. They could see nothing now except the glow of the flames. They had no other choice but to move forward upon the wave of humanity that bore them. Where was it taking them? Was it to safety or to a blind spot where they would be crushed or burned to death?
Soon a door 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. A crowd of about twenty other people made their way out at the same time. Most of the women were crying and screaming. The men stood helplessly, rubbing their eyes, stunned into silence. Finally a man came along and told them 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. Gerald ran frantically from group to group, searching for any sign of Lorraine.
The next few hours were like a tableau out of hell, with chaos, confusion and disbelief; sirens, screams, billowing smoke, walls of flame, ambulances coming and going, fire engines roaring, hoses like tentacles going every which way on the street, men trying to battle the flames but repeatedly driven back by the heat and smoke.
Firefighters began bringing bodies out and, having no other choice, 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 Gerald went away and came back again to the spot where he had left Linda standing on the street corner, she asked him if he had spotted Lorraine yet, but she already knew what the answer was going to be.
Six hours after the fire broke out, Gerald 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 Gerald’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.
The night that seemed without end finally came to an end.
The next morning, newspaper headlines screamed the news: Worst Nightclub Fire in American History. 500 Dead. Many More Injured.
Gerald and Linda both were questioned by police and reporters to get their version of what happened. To Linda it all seemed too unreal, too unlikely, to be true. Her beautiful older sister, whom she had always idolized, was dead and never coming back.
An overflow crowd attended Lorraine’s funeral, many of them curiosity seekers. They wanted to see what a body would look like after it had been through such a hellish ordeal, but the casket was kept closed. Gerald knew it’s what Lorraine would have wanted.
Linda returned to school after two weeks, something of a celebrity. People who never noticed her before now wanted to be her friends.
Gerald remained a good friend to Linda. With Lorraine gone, he was the only family she had left. He became Linda’s guardian and allowed her to stay in her mother’s house, paying all the bills and providing whatever was needed.
Lorraine was lying about the money. More than eight hundred thousand dollars came to Gerald as Lorraine’s husband, more than he ever expected. He quit his job (which he despised anyway), made some wise investments, and planned never to have to work again. He could have married again but decided against it. Lorraine had been more than enough woman for him for one lifetime.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp