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Christmas Basket, Part I


by Dana Sherman

Remember WENN and the characters therein are owned by Rupert Holmes, Howard Meltzer Productions, and AMC. All original characters are my own, as is the story itself.

Note: This story is dedicated to Miss Julia Beatrice Sherman. Thanks for the inspiration, Julia, and you're still Mommy's little sugar lump!

This story takes place about 2 weeks after All Noisy on the Pittsburgh Front.

December 25, 1941

12:45AM

The air was crisp and cold, but at least there was no wind. She could be grateful for that. She peered into the small brown basket at the peaceful face of the sleeping baby and adjusted the worn blanket, wrapping it around the baby's neck and shoulders to keep out the chill. She considered her next move carefully. She did not know where she was going. She wasn't even sure where she should be going.

Going back home would have been nice, but she couldn't go back home. The door was locked and her keys had been taken. Her mother was dead and her father had refused to speak to her since he had learned of her pregnancy. He could be a cruel man. No, not cruel exactly. Just set in his ways and slow to change. Slow to open up to any idea not his own. His daughter got herself in trouble. Naturally, his door must be closed to her forever. That is how his father would have reacted to such a situation, and his grandfather, and his great-grandfather before him.

So the question remained. Where should she go? Once her father had put her out of his house, she had managed to get a job in a department store, careful not to mention her condition to anyone else at all. She took one room in the smallest and shabbiest of the Pittsburgh tenement apartments she could find. Twelve dollars each month, and even that had been difficult to afford. She worked on her feet for ten hours per day, ringing and wrapping up sales at the cosmetics counter. Then it was a long walk home. The ten cents per day she saved by not taking the street car counted as fifty cents per week. That fifty cents per week went into a glass jar, saved to pay the old woman down the hall who had promised to help her deliver the baby. It had not been an easy life, but at least she had an apartment and a job.

The job had ended the instant her pregnancy could no longer be hidden under wide blouses and shirtwaist dresses. The manager hadn't liked to let her go, but he had no choice. There was a strict store policy about the morality of all employees. All their salesgirls must be of the highest moral standards. He had the board of directors to answer to, and a visably pregnant sales girl was the kind of thing that could give a store a bad name. Best of luck and goodbye, he had said, pressing a ten dollar bill into her hand. His own money, she had realized, given to her out of kindness. That ten dollars had been a godsend. It had bought her one more month with a roof over her head.

She slipped in and out of the shadows of midnight, careful to hide herself, wondering where she could leave her baby. A church? That was the traditional route, she supposed. Leave the fatherless baby on the church doorstep and have it brought up in the orphanage by the nuns or adopted by some noble churchgoing lady. How often had that been done in the melodramas of her father's youth?

A good idea, with just one problem. It was midnight on Christmas Eve. Every church in Pittsburgh was jammed with parishoners at midnight Mass. To leave a baby on a church doorstep tonight would be tantamount to abandoning her child in front of an audience.

Abandoning her child. How those words stung her heart, but there was no way to deny them. That is exactly what she was doing. She was looking for a place to place the basket containing her baby down and then walk away. She looked at the tiny baby girl's sweet face once again and stopped briefly to kiss her on the forehead before continuing her journey through the dark streets of Pittsburgh. She had to be finished with her mission and out of sight before the church masses concluded and the streets were once again filled with people.

"...We wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy new year!" The voices were loud and boisterous, quite probably a bit drunk. The sound of the singing approached rapidly in the darkness. She ducked into an alley, wrapping the baby's blanket quickly around her and praying that the tiny infant wouldn't start to cry.

"Good tidings to all, and all of your kin..." the singing voices passed without noticing the grey clad figure hidden in the shadows. She was taking too big a chance. It was nearly one o'clock. In a few minutes, the churches would end their services. It was now or never.

A heavy metal door opened into the alley. The back entrance of an office building of some sort. It was braced open with a heavy doorstop. She ran inside and pushed the door shut behind her. The dim lamp on the street shining through the heavy glass window in the door was all that stood between her and total darkness.

At least she was safe here. For the time being anyway. She sat down on the dingy steps and lifted the cloth from the basket. The tiny baby was awake, her slate blue eyes were wide and she started to stir and whimper. The weary and heartsick young woman lifted her out of the basket and held her tightly to her breast.

The last three weeks had been pure hell. She didn't like to use such a word, but there was simply no other accurate one. The birth was bad enough by itself. It had taken all day and most of the night, and she had been attended only by the woman down the hall. She was an elderly woman who had been a nurse during the first World War. She made a small living helping out the residents of the tenement with their health problems. Everything from colds to gunshot wounds to the occasional childbirth. She'd had no medication for the pain but a small amount of cheap liquor, which had been accepted gratefully.

Two days to rest and feed her baby and it was time to find a new job. She'd wrapped up her baby and trudged to every office, store and hotel in Pittsburgh begging for work. Any kind of work would do. She would answer phones, sweep floors, change beds. Heck, she'd dance naked if it paid well enough. No dice. Every single manager of every single company took one look at the thin, scared looking girl, with hair that looked like it needed a wash, cradling a pale sickly baby in her arms, and had turned her down flat. Some were polite about it. Some were rude. But the final answer was always the same. No job, honey.

"Mommy is sorry, sweetie," she whispered in the baby's ear. "Mommy never would give her little angel away if she had a choice." She rocked the baby slowly and nursed her lovingly. The baby stopped her cries and fed eagerly. The woman looked around at her surroundings. She was sitting on the bottom step of what appeared to be the back stairs leading up to some offices. She rose, lifted the baby and walked slowly up the staircase. The door at the top of the stairs had a single word stenciled in faded red paint onto its heavy metal surface. It read WENN. Whatever that meant.

From the street, the sounds of parishioners leaving the midnight masses, carolers singing their songs of peace and hope, and raucous partygoers for whom the meaning of Christmas was more in alcohol than spirituality, rose up the stairs. She dare not leave the building now. She pushed the door at the top of the stairs. It swung open with a loud creak. She entered the office slowly, tiptoing, and ready to hide at the first sign of intrusion. It was quiet. No sign of life.

She stepped carefully down the corridor, peering into offices and other rooms, wondering where she was. A door marked Studio A, with a large window of glass beckoned her. She looked in, eying the microphones and recording equipment. Suddenly, it dawned on her. WENN! A four letter word beginning with a W. Of course, it was a radio station. She smiled to herself.

She knew WENN well. She had often sat on the sofa in the parlor in her father's house, listening to "Valiant Journey" or "Sam Dane, Private Eye." She never thought she would ever see their studios. Certainly not under these circumstances.

She switched the basket containing the baby to the other hand and continued down the corridor. She swung open another door and stepped into a comfortable-looking room with soft chairs and a sofa. An assortment of dishes and kitchen appliances lined the shelves and counter on one side of the room. A hot plate sat unplugged. Its cord wrapped around it for safety.

It was now or never. This room was perfect. It was warm and comfortable. There were soft chairs and couches. Clearly women worked here. The beauty of the Christmas décor definitely indicated a woman's decorating touch. Wreaths and lights hung around the walls and a beautifully decorated tree, hung with delicate paper snowflakes and silver tinsel, stood in the corner. She only hoped they were good kind people who would do what they could for her baby. She bent down over her baby, who had drifted back to sleep.

"Goodbye, little angel," she whispered. "I hope someday, I'll see you again" She carefully fastened a bracelet around the wrist of the tiny baby girl. It was inscribed with the words "Love, Mommy." It had been given to her by her own mother when she was a little girl herself. She kissed the infant's soft cheek, and then, before she lost all her courage, got to her feet and walked out the door, not daring to look back.

December 25, 1941

7:25AM

Betty and Maple arrived at the station together. Since Maple had taken an apartment at the Barbican, she had taken to travelling to and from work with Betty. They were nearly always the first to arrive at the station. It was not yet 7:30 on Christmas morning when they walked in the door, singing a duet of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" at full volume. Smiling and humming, they hung up their coats and then they turned their separate ways, Betty to the writer's room, and Maple to the Green Room for a morning cup of coffee and donut. She looked as Christmassy as could be in her emerald green dress, her red hair sparkling under the matching hat with gold trim. Smiling, and still singing happily, she swung open the Green Room doors.

"Waaah!!!"

Maple stopped singing. She stopped smiling. She even stopped moving. She stopped dead in her tracks.

"Waaaaaaaah!!!" The voice was more insistent this time.

Maple slowly regained her large motor skills and turned around in the direction of the sound. It was coming from the sofa. A small wicker basket sat on the cushion, from which emanated the strange cries. Maple went to the basket and carefully lifted the pink blanket, already fairly sure of what she would find.

"Waaaah! Waaaaah! Waaaaaah!!!!" The tiny pink bundle of baby greeted her loudly and with vigor. She kicked her legs about and waved her arms, her mouth suckling as she desperately looked for food.

"Oh, you little angel!" Maple looked at the tiny helpless baby in the basket with wonder, and no little curiosity. "You must be starving, poor little thing." She lifted the baby up out of her basket. The infant was wearing a tiny dark red dress with a matching plaid bow and booties. Maple did not bother to check the baby's gender. That this was a girl seemed obvious. How could this have happened? she wondered helplessly. Who could do such a thing?

"Waaaaaaaaaaaaah!!!"

No time to wonder or speculate, Maple realized suddenly. This baby needed food, and she needed it now. Having been the oldest of four children, and having done her share of babysitting in her time, Maple was fully aware that babies drank milk. They drank their mother's milk if there was any to be had. Well, clearly, there was none of that around this station. Baby formula? Well, that could be bought at the grocery store. Maybe she could run down and pick some up...oh yeah, the grocery store was closed for Christmas Day. So was nearly every other store in Pittsburgh. There was no time to start hunting down baby formula. The baby needed to eat now. She would have to have some regular milk. At least, she thought gratefully, we do have some of that.

Maple went to the refrigerator and took out a glass bottle of milk. It was usually used for adding to coffee, but for today, Hilary would just have to have her coffee black. Was there anything at all resembling a baby bottle in the Green Room? She looked around frantically, the baby's plaintive screams tearing at both her ears and her heart. Betty must be all the way at the other end of the office suite not to notice the noise.

Hmmm, the eye dropper from the medicine cabinet. That might work. She ran hot water through it in the sink to clean it. Then she filled a coffee mug with the milk and carefully drew some of the milk into the dropper, placed it in the baby's mouth and squeezed the bulb. The baby drew the milk down hungrily. It worked! Maple repeated the procedure again and again, eventually getting enough milk into the baby to quiet her cries.

She looked down at the tiny innocent face. She had been very hungry, but it was just as clear that she was not in poor health. She had been dressed carefully and wrapped up in a blanket, which, while a bit old and thin, also looked fairly warm. She had been placed in a well-lined basket. Maple quickly went through the items in the basket. Six cotton diapers with a set of diaper pins, and a small scrawled note. It was written in large block letters and read "I can't take care of this baby. Please make sure she is all right. I love her." The note was unsigned.

The baby waved her tiny arms up in the air toward Maple as she happily sucked the milk down into her stomach. It was then that Maple noticed the gold chain with the charm inscribed with the heartfelt inscription. Oh, the poor mother! How miserable she must have been to leave such a beautiful little treasure behind.

What was she to do? Maple tried to consider her options but found herself at a complete loss. There was only one course action to take. She would do what anyone at WENN would do when faced with a crisis. She would ask Betty Roberts what to do.

Gathering baby and blanket together in her arms, she walked quickly down the corridor toward the writers room, knocked and walked in, without even bothering to wait for a "come in" from Betty.

"Betty, look at this!" Betty looked up from her typewriter and saw the look on Maple's face. She immediately got up from her desk. The two women peered over the blanketed bundle, incredulously.

"Where did she come from?" Betty whispered.

"Well, if you don't know that by your age, I'm not going to explain it to you," Maple giggled, some of her feistiness apparently breaking through her own amazement.

Betty raised her eyebrows, but shared the giggle. "You know what I mean, Maple. Why is this baby in our office?"

"She must have just been abandoned here. Here, look at this." Maple handed Betty the note and pointed out the charm bracelet on the baby's wrist.

Betty looked them over carefully. She shook her head in incredulous wonder. "Who on earth goes to a radio station to abandon a baby?" she muttered, more to herself than to Maple.

"People who are desperate do weird things," Maple replied. "Remember that girl who delivered her baby in our Green Room? She wasn't exactly thinking straight, was she?"

"Cora," Betty smiled. "She was a sweet girl. I'm glad Gus decided to marry her after all. But that's the point, Maple. Wendel has parents who love him and want him. Gus and Cora might have done things a little backwards, but at least it all worked out in the end. This poor baby was just left here. Who would do something like that?"

"I don't know, Betty," Maple sighed. "I know it looks awful, but you read the note. She must have really been up against it to do something like that."

"Well, the important question is what do we do now?" Betty stated. She peered down at the baby again. "She seems to be asleep. That's good, at least for the time being."

"When she wakes up, she'll probably need a change and more milk," Maple told her.

"And how would you know?" Betty asked her.

"I used to take care of my baby brothers when I was a kid, and I did a little babysitting, too."

"Well, that's more than I know. I guess you're the baby expert." Betty smiled at the tiny baby, whose eyes were screwed up tightly and whose hands were wrapped around her blanket.

"But you're from Indiana. I thought all country girls knew about babies".

"Not this country girl," Betty told her. "I'm an only child, and I never babysat. I know more about caring for a baby calf than a baby person.

"She's so cute," Maple breathed as she smiled down at the baby girl, gently rocking the basket in her arms. "We could just keep her around here for a while."

"Maple! This isn't foundling hospital. We don't have any facilities for babies. What if she gets sick? What do we do when all her diapers are dirty? There is no laundry near here. What about fresh clothes for her? What about..."

"Okay Betty, I see your point. It's not practical. But she's just such a pretty little thing".

"Yes, she is that." Betty gave the baby a quick kiss on the forehead and looked at Maple.

"I guess I'd better call someone about her. There must be some kind of child protective agency in this city. This kind of thing has to be under some kind of official authority. I'll see about getting the number." She headed out toward the switchboard, giving the baby a smile and a pat on her way past. Maple did not pay any attention to her leaving. She was too busy cooing and making kissing noises at the sleeping baby.

Betty rolled her eyes, but politely thanked the telephone operator for her trouble. "What's wrong, Betty?" Maple asked her as she entered the reception area with the baby in her arms.

"The child protective agency is closed for Christmas, of course. I'm afraid this little tyke is ours until tomorrow morning."

"Oh, good!" Maple shouted, then remembered and tried to look downcast. "Uh...sorry Betty, but she IS cute!"

The door opened, and Mackie Bloom entered the station. His 7:45AM news was the first show of the morning, so he tended to be the first to arrive at the station, after Maple and Betty. He grinned at them and started to greet them with a cheerful "Merry Christmas, ladies," then saw the tiny baby in Maple's arms, and raised one eyebrow.

"You keep secrets really well, Maple," he grinned at her.

"I keep secrets as well as Walter Winchell on truth syrup," Maple answered, her own eyes dancing with merriment. "I found her in the Green Room this morning. She's been abandoned."

"Abandoned, right here in the studio? But, that's awful! How...when..."

"As far as we know, sometime last night Mackie," Betty told him. Maple found her in the Green Room this morning. The proper agency to call is closed for Christmas. She's ours till tomorrow morning. Here's your news script." She handed him a freshly typed sheet of paper.

"Maybe we should announce this over the radio," Mackie suggested. "Maybe the mother will hear it and come back for her."

"Or maybe the mother will hear it and take a handful of sleeping pills," Betty shook her head. "No, I don't want to do anything at all about this until we hear from professionals. We don't know how to handle a situation like this. The best thing to do is just keep this baby healthy and quiet until someone can come and get her." She glanced at her watch. "Mackie, it's nearly time for the news. Hurry!"

Mackie nodded, took the script out of Betty's hand, and gave a quick glance at the baby in Maple's arms. The baby picked that moment to open her slate blue eyes, wrinkle up her tiny nose, and look utterly adorable. She launched into a series of tiny baby sneezes. Mackie melted.

"Mackie!!" Betty was starting to sound a bit panicked. Mackie broke out of his spell, turned, and hightailed it into the studio.

"Hey, the baby can't help it if Mackie is a sucker for a cute face," Maple joked. "Look, Betty, I got to do Bedside Manor at 8. I'm playing the maid again." She rolled her eyes. "You gotta take the baby for a while."

"Maple, I've got three scripts to finish by noon. Isn't there some other way?"

"I don't see how. I could hold the baby while we're on the air, but she might start to cry"

"Well, we certainly don't want that on the air. Oh, all right. I'll take the baby for a while." Betty smiled as she looked down at the tiny creature who squirmed helplessly as Maple passed her into Betty's arms. "After all, she's just a little thing. How much trouble could she be? No, don't answer that Maple. I don't think I want to know."

At exactly one minute to eight AM, the door swung open once again to reveal the arrivals of the rest of the WENN cast. Jeff Singer and Hilary Booth, apparently going through one of their periods of being madly in love, as Jeff had his arm around Hilary's waist, and she was whispering sweet nothings into her husband's ear. Gertie and Eugenia followed quickly behind them.

"Really now, Gertie," Eugenia piped cheerfully. "I rather like to see two young people in love."

"Well, of course, you do. So do I," Gertie answered her co-worker. "We all like to see young people in love. But Hilary and Jeff have been married for almost ten years now. A little discretion is called for. At least, I would think so."

"No, only about six months, really."

"Well, I wasn't counting all their divorces and remarriages. Not that I could ever keep track of them, anyway. They've been married, as far as I'm concerned for ten years, and they shouldn't still be behaving like teenagers with too many hormones." Gertie shook her head in dismay as Jeff and Hilary continued their public snuggle. The couple seemed completely unaware of the controversy they had inspired.

"Hello everyone," Betty greeted them. "I'm afraid there is no gentle or diplomatic way to ease into this revelation, so I'll just come right out and say it. There is a baby at this station".

"There will be a baby at this station if the two lovebirds don't cut it out," Gertie grumbled.

"And it's this baby," Betty finished with a flourish, unwrapping the blanket slightly and indicating the child in her arms. All four newcomers gathered around and peered down into the infant's face.

"Oh, how beautiful!" Eugenia gushed. "Have you ever seen something so beautiful in your entire life?"

"I have," Jeff answered her obliviously, gazing alternately from the baby to his wife. "I see something beautiful sleeping next to me every morning." Gertie rolled her eyes.

"It's a lovely baby, Betty," Gertie told her. "Any particular reason why we have decided to open up a nursery?"

Betty Roberts just sighed.

*********************** "Who's my itsy bitsy pretty pumpkin? Is it you? I bet it is! I just bet it is!" Jeff smiled at his wife over the microphone.

"No, no, no! I'm not your pumpkin. You're MY pumpkin!" Hilary gazed up at her husband worshipfully.

"Oh, no, I'm not!"

"Oh, yes, you are!"

"I'll give you one guess what my Christmas wish is," Jeff told her while looking down at her cleavage suggestively.

"Oh, you naughty boy! I can't even begin to guess!

"Too bad. If I told you on the air, we'd get arrested!" This remark caused Hilary to erupt in a gale of girlish giggles.

"You just might get your wish, you know. Remember, our anniversary is next week."

"As if I could ever forget. Ten years with my Pumpkin!"

"You're my Pumpkin!"

"Oh, no, I'm not."

"Oh, yes, you are!"

"A cup of delicious, piping hot Ingram's coffee, Mr. Singer?" Maple read from her script as the maid, though she knew it was simply futile to do so.

"Piping hot coffee! Jeffrey, darling, doesn't that remind you of that steamy, hot night we spent in Acapulco?" Maple stopped listening.

*********************** Betty stood in the writer's room, holding a squirming, whimpering, fussing baby, trying to bounce and rock it into some kind of contentment, while listening to Jeff and Hilary gush their way through Bedside Manor on the portable radio, and at least attempting to maintain some vague sort of image as a professional and competent employee with her boss. Victor Comstock paced up and down in the small room, requiring Betty to periodically jump out of his way.

"Betty, Bedside Manor is supposed to be a witty, charming breakfast show. The listeners want to tune in to hear sophisticated and urbane banter by two shining lights of the legitimate theatre. They want to hear about world events and theatre gossip. They most definitely do not want to hear the gripping controversy about exactly who is whose itsy bitsy pumpkin! We have gotten six phone calls already this morning about their idiotic childishness and self indulgent baby talk." He raised his voice to be heard as the baby's whimpers became actual cries.

"It's okay, little sweet cheeks. Auntie Betty is going to make her little sweet cheeks all happy again," Betty told the baby girl, as she rocked her more vigorously in her arms. "Sorry, Victor. Self indulgent baby talk, yes, I heard every word." Victor stared at her without saying a word. The telephone rang.

"W.E.N.N," Victor answered. "Yes, Gertie. Just send it through to the writer's room, Gertie. Yes, Mr. Ingram. No, Mr. Ingram. Yes, I see. I understand your feelings completely. Yes, I fully agree that Jeff and Hilary are behaving like a couple of big babies." The baby's cries now rose to howls. "Yes, big babies," shouted Victor over the cries. "I'm not shouting at you, Mr. Ingram. We have a baby here to deal with. No, not Jeff and Hilary, a real baby. I said a real baby! As in waah, waah, waah! Yes, of course we have a respectable radio station here. No, Mr. Ingram I don't usually turn this place into a day nursery. Yes, Mr. Ingram. Goodbye, Mr. Ingram."

Victor hung up the phone and turned to Betty, who was bouncing the baby desperately. "I am, I fully admit, no particular expert on infants, but judging from the time you say Maple fed her, it wouldn't be at all surprising if she needs a changing."

"With my luck, you're probably right." Betty sighed, picked up the basket and took out a clean diaper and the set of pins. "OK, out!", she said to Victor. "If I have to change this baby, at least I don't need you watching me do it." Victor nodded and left Betty to her task. "And when Maple gets off the air," Betty called out to him, "tell her to get back here and take this adorable, precious, and totally unhousebroken baby off my hands!"

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