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Italics denotes thoughts
April 11th, 1943
Maple LaMarsh Comstock, one of radio station WENN's most accomplished actresses, ran into the office looking like she just faced Hitler. Her scarlet hair was wind-blown, her flowered hat was askew, and she'd chipped one heavily lacquered fingernail. The temporary station manager and Maple's husband, Victor, looked up from the bills he was in the process of trying to put off paying.
"Victor," Maple exclaimed in a breathless Brooklyn accent, "we're being invaded!"
Victor shot out of his seat in an instant, the bills forgotten. "By who? The Germans, the Japanese, the..."
Victor frowned in confusion. "Your mother?"
"Yeah, she telegrammed me and said that she got a job singing in a Pittsburgh nightclub and thought she'd drop in and visit."
Victor sat back down in his chair and picked up his bills. "What's wrong with that? We're a little pressed for time right now, since Betty and Scott went to Indiana to attend her cousin's wedding and you've been playing a great many of Hilary's roles. However, I'm sure we could show her around the stations, and I would like to meet some of your family."
Maple sat down alongside the man who rather inadvertently become her spouse. "Victor, it ain't...it's not the time thing. It's Mama. She likes to think that she can run my life, even though she's barely been in it." Maple shrugged. "She left my papa when I was a kid because he wanted to raise us in one location and she didn't. She's been traveling ever since. I haven't seen her in four years, since I moved here."
Victor put aside the bills for a moment and cleared his throat. "Maple," he began, "about our marriage..."
"Victor," Maple started at the same time, "about what happened the night I came back..." They realized that they were talking at once and shyly laughed.
"You go first, honey," Maple insisted. "You take longer."
Victor shook his head no. "Ladies first."
"Well," Maple began, "I think that what you did for me...stopping Perrey Dawson from blasting my chest to the next county...was really..." Maple struggled to find a word that described how Victor had saved her life that hectic early morning "...really swell of you." Swell? Oh, come on, Maple LaMarsh Comstock, you can think of a better word than that!
Victor gulped as he gazed into Maple's big brown eyes. How do I go about this? Why do I always have such a difficult time revealing my romantic feelings to women? "Maple, I do desire to remain wed, since, as you mentioned in Africa, we went and did, uh, it. However, I would prefer to keep it a marriage based on mutual respect and a desire for companionship and knowledge." Oh, good grief Victor Comstock, she'd never agree to that! She obviously cares about you, and you have some emotion toward her, especially after you put yourself in the hospital protecting her and almost gave Perrey Dawson a concussion!
Maple shrugged again. "If that's how you want it, honey." He called me his wife when he tackled Perrey Dawson. He feels something for me, I know he does. He just doesn't wanna admit it 'cause he's so darn shy! I don't think I've ever dated a shy guy before. Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever met a shy guy before. I think he still likes Betty, too. I saw how he looked at her right before Perrey said he was gonna fill me with lead.
"We'll have a real wedding after the war is over," Victor insisted. "You will wear a genuine bridal gown with a tremendous amount of lace and all of our friends and your family will be invited. There will be a cake and organ music and flowers."
"Whadda 'bout your family, Victor? We can't forget them. I'd like to meet your folks."
Victor stared Maple straight in the eye. "Maple, my parents died in an automobile accident when I was three years old. I have very little memory of what happened. I only know what I was told later by my grandmother. Father was taking Mother and me on an outing to the local park when he ran directly into an ice cart. The owner of the cart and his horse were unhurt, but both the cart and Father's vehicle were destroyed. Father died on impact. Mother was killed when the car overturned." He pressed his index finger against a faint scar near his right eye. "I received numerous bruises, cuts, scrapes, and this scar. Grandmother informed me that it was so deep it required nine stitches to keep it closed."
Maple gazed at her husband with newfound respect. Papa was both a mama and a papa to her and her brothers and sisters after Mama decided that she'd rather live on the road than in three rooms over a vaudeville theater in Brooklyn. She didn't know what she'd have done if he'd been killed when she and her siblings were younger. She and Maureen probably would have quit school even earlier than they did to take care of Mike and Dolores. Papa held the family and the act together. He cooked the meals, taught all the kids how to sing, dance, act, and play the piano, haggled with the landlady to get another extension on the rent, and kept their books until Maureen, and later Dolores, showed a genius for numbers. He gladly allowed them to take over his tax books. "Who watched you after that?"
Victor shrugged. "Grandmother, Mother's mother, took care of me for four years, until she died. I lived in a succession of orphanages and foster homes after that until I became of age and able to care for myself. My parents weren't wealthy, but Grandmother left me enough money to attend a state college."
Victor looked so sad that Maple wanted to throw her arms around him and hug all his hurt away. She ached for the little boy who didn't know what it was like to have a real family and for the man who didn't understand love and affection. No wonder he's always giving speeches for the Winthrop School and the Isabella Street Orphanage. She settled for kissing him instead. Victor's eyes widened. "What was that for?"
Maple leaned her head on his shoulder. Victor looked perplexed. "I just wanted to make you feel better."
Mr. Eldridge entered Victor's office with a big bag in his hand. "Hilary just asked me if I could find some yarn for her so she could knit some clothes for the baby," the old man explained. "Jeff's mother's teaching her."
Maple and Victor exchanged surprised looks. "Hilary is learning how to knit?" Victor asked. "Did Mr. Foley strike her on the head with the microphone boom again?"
"Oh, no," Mr. Eldridge reassured them, "her head's as hard as ever."
He was nearly knocked over by a tall, voluptuous, redhead in a silk coat, beaded hat, and flashy scarlet and emerald dress. "Hey, old guy, ya wouldn't know where I could find an Anna Murdock, would ya? Oh, I guess you'd call her Maple. She's my little girl, or one of them, at least."
Maple put her finger to her lips and moved in the direction of the green room. "You never saw me, Victor," she whispered. "If anyone asks, I moved to Alaska or Berlin or something."
"Why," he whispered back. "What in the world is troubling you?"
Mr. Eldridge pointed in the direction of the office. "We have a Maple working here, but she's not a little girl. She's a girl like Maple." He shuffled off to give Hilary her yarn before she made a fuss about it. Hilary could make a big deal over nothing at all.
Maple almost made it out the door, but the woman noticed her and yelled "Don't you even try to sneak out on your own mama, Anna Maria Murdock!"
Victor leaped from his seat. "You're Maple's mother?"
The woman grinned and looked Victor over. "You got that right, sweetheart. Didja see some of the men in uniform running around? If I wasn't about ten years older than most of them and married I'd love to make some sweet music with those sweeties. Was it you or Dolores who was crazy about men in uniform, Annie?" She grabbed her daughter's hand before Victor could open his mouth. "So, tell me about yourself, baby. You haven't written in nearly six months. I wanna hear all about the USO. I'm thinking about joining up myself. I think it's swell that the Armed Forces are letting women get in on the action. You should join up again. We'll start our own mother-daughter act. I've heard things about some of those European soldiers that they couldn't repeat in Life magazine, yet me tell you."
Maple jumped away from her mother. "Mama, I don't believe you! Why do you always think you can walk into my life and take it over? I'm not a baby and I'm not your baby!"
Victor could tell that Maple was upset and decided to intervene. He took Mrs. Murdock's satin-gloved hand and gave it a hearty shake. "I'm quite delighted to finally encounter you, Mrs. Murdock. My name is Victor Comstock. I labor here as a journalist for the Wartime News and Entertainment Network and as the temporary station manager. Maple, uh, Anna, has told me about you and your work throughout this great country of ours."
Mrs. Murdock gave Victor such a big pat on the back that he almost landed face down on the office floor. "You don't have use all that fancy talk with me, sweetheart. I don't know if Annie told you this, but you don't call me Mrs. Murdock. I perform under my maiden name, Casanetti. Just call me Francesca." She grabbed Victor by his collar and began dusting him off. "Sorry, sweetheart, sometimes I don't know my own strength." Francesca pulled Victor so close to her that he could smell her rather cloying perfume. She squinted at him and let him go. "Say, you must be that long-winded fella Anna married. She said that you could talk up a storm and that you used words that dictationaries wouldn't understand. She said you were real conservationtive and not too bright about what goes on between a woman and a man." She turned to her angry and shocked daughter. "He ain't bad lookin', for a Joe who's lost half of his hair."
Mackie poked his head in the office. "Hey, Maple, are you planning on helping Amazon Andy save the free world tonight, or are we going to let the villains have a go at world domination?"
"Yeah, Mackie, I'm comin'," Maple said without her usual buoyancy. "I guess Victor can show you around, Mama, while I play Yudo Yudy and Yvonne the Terrible on the air. We can have dinner at the Buttery when Mackie and Giselle do the news." Francesca and Victor watched her walk out. She looks as if she's going to attend a funeral, Victor thought.
"I wonder what got into Annie," Francesca mused. "She's usually so full of energy."
"I believe your visit's upsetting her," Victor ventured.
Francesca gave him a look of utter bewilderment. "My visit? Why would that get her mad? My babies love their mama. She needs more lovin', that's all."
Victor frowned as he made for the door. "Maple...Anna and I have been man and wife for a sententious amount of time, Mrs. Murd...um, Ms. Casanetti. However, that brief period has permitted me to recognize certain portions of her soul that I'm not sure she's even aware of. Your daughter has great potential, as both an actress and a woman."
"You don't know her like I do, sweetheart," Francesca growled. "I'm her mother, after all. I know what's best for my babies."
"Maybe Anna doesn't desire to be regarded as merely a child anymore," Victor simply stated. "She wishes to be your equal and for you to see her as she is, not how you want her to be."
April 14th, 1943
Maple stood in Studio A, surrounded by Army officers, Air Force pilots, most of the WENN staff, and her mother, who was today's guest on the variety program "The Glint Grab-Bag". Her mama was a huge hit with everyone at the station but Hilary Booth. Francesca said right to Hilary's face that she'd seen her in "The Rivals" and hated both the show and Hilary's performance. Her exact words were that she considered Hilary's acting in the show to be the equivalent of something in the Saturday afternoon serials and that the show itself was "nothing but a lotta talk about who's cheating who and who's had more affairs". They would've gotten into a very loud shouting match if Victor and Hilary's bulging belly hadn't separated them. Or, to quote Francesca, "I don't punch pregnant dames".
Maple hadn't seen Victor since this afternoon. Francesca wouldn't leave him alone. She called him stuffy and boring. Maple knew what her mother wanted. She wanted her to divorce Victor and marry some guy who was funny and winning and would treat her like a floozy - or like a little sister. One of the reasons she loved Victor was that he was the only man she'd ever known who'd ever treated her like a woman and made her feel loved for more than her body or her performing skills. Golly, I think I love him. I do. I love Victor Comstock, long words and all.
Francesca was laughing at one of Mackie's jokes that made the WAC's in the room blush and the officers roar with delight. Where is Victor? She didn't hear him over the short wave. He'd missed his W.E.N.N program entirely and Mackie ended up reading his speech of the day about the importance of the war in the Pacific. It wasn't like him to be so late. He avoided her and Francesca this morning. He never misses "The Glint Grab Bag". This is his favorite show on WENN.
Mr. Foley and Eugenia were backing up Francesca's big solo, the Gershwin tune "Nice Work If You Can Get It", when the doors to Studio A swung open and a normally gentle voice cried out "Hi there, everyone! I'm here! I'm late, but I'm here!"
Victor Comstock stumbled into Studio A. Maple had never seen him look so terrible. His eyes were bloodshot and his cheek was covered with a purplish handprint. There was a smear of crimson lipstick on his crumpled collar. He was missing his tie and his shoes were unlaced. Mr. Foley was so shocked that he dropped his clarinet into one of the glasses that he used in the Glint Dishwashing Liquid commercial. "Whatsa matta?" Victor slurred angrily. "Am I so dull that the party's gonna stop just 'causa my presence in this segment of Pittsburgh?"
The staff and the volunteers stared helplessly at each other. "And, uh, we're proud to bring you this important announcement from Victor Comstock, the narrator of the 'The Reasons We Fight' series. He's come to tell something we should all remember about the war effort," Mackie stammered.
Hilary put her hand over her microphone. "He looks like he's drowned himself in some of O'Malley's best pina coladas, heavy on the rum, light on the pineapple and coconut."
Victor marched up to Francesca and poked his finger into her chest. She just stood there in front of the microphone with her mouth open. "Isn't this how you wanted me to behave, Mrs. Murdock," he snarled. "You kept saying that I should lighten up, have more fun, stop being such a tick-in-the-dirt. I went to O'Malley's and had fun. I drank. I smoked, which I've never done before. I spoke devilish words to women who weren't Maple. I fought with men twice my size and won, too. Is that what you want for your baby?" He towered over Francesca like a thousand-year-old tree towers over a sapling.
Eugenia frantically leaned into her microphone, interrupting Mr. Foley, who was also about to speak. "Uh, yes, people, we want you all out there in Pittsburgh to fight for the good of the Allied cause and give those devilish Axis what's coming to them."
"To hell with the Allied cause," Victor hissed. His words echoed in the studio. "To hell with you, Francesca Casanetti Murdock! You can call me what you want, but I'm still me. That's all I am and that's all I ever want to be. I...I...I don't feel so good." Victor turned green as Army fatigues and rushed out of the studio.
"Pavre Monsieur Comstock," sighed Giselle. "He must have drank too many of those pine-a coladas. He looked very ill."
Mackie turned the page of his script as Maple ran out of the Studio and Francesca followed her. "He didn't sound much like himself, did he? Well, our friends from Loonyville aren't sounding much like themselves lately, either!"
"They don't? Who do they sound like?" Giselle innocently asked.
Maple sighed again as she pressed an ice pack onto her husband's bruised cheek. "What in heaven's name were you doing at O'Malley's, picking a fight with every King-Kong-sized officer in the joint?" They sat on the chair outside the men's room. Victor hadn't come out until "The Glint Grab-Bag" was long over.
"I wanted to prove a point, Maple," Victor admitted. "I'm very much ashamed of myself for doing so. I cannot believe I said all of those awful things to the cast, and your mother, and you." He looked down at his now-tied shoes. "Especially to you. I would never do anything to hurt you, Maple. You're bold and bright and full of vigor. You bring more life into my life than anyone I've ever known."
Maple smiled. "Is that the whole story?"
"It's most of the truth," he said with a faint grin. "Several actors who are employed at the Crimson Follies were making merry quips about your being an easy catch. They claimed that you were just another loose woman who acted high and mighty because she was no longer forced to remove her clothes for a living. I overheard them and, in my extremely inebriated state, chose to introduce them to my fist in order change their way of thinking about you."
She couldn't believe it. No man ever did something like that for her before. "Thanks, honey! It's an honor to have you defend my honor."
"And it's an honor you well deserve, baby," Francesca added as she entered the lobby. "The others are in the studio and the receptionist went out to dinner with that crazy old coot who makes the coffee. I just wanted to say good-bye. I'm going to ship out to the Pacific in a few hours. I heard that things are really heating up over there. It's where the action is nowadays."
Maple rubbed Victor's shoulder. "Can I be alone with Mama for five minutes, Victor?"
"Certainly. I'll go check on the broadcast." He nodded at Francesca. "I apologize for my rash speech earlier on 'The Glint Grab-Bag'. I made something of a fool of myself."
"I'm the one who should apologize to you, sweet...Victor," Francesca admitted. "I still think you're stuffy, but you'll make my baby a great hubby. You'd make a swell knight, too, the way you go around saving dames' repartitions."
He shook Francesca's hand again. "Thank you, Francesca." He headed for the control room and Maple faced her parent. There was awkward silence between mother and daughter.
"Anna, baby," Francesca began, "I know I haven't been the best mother in the world, but won't you give me a chance? I know you love it here, baby. I want to come back here and see some new babies."
"So you can turn them into more Murdock troopers?" Maple bitterly hissed. "Mama, your problem is that you can't stand that I'm not your baby anymore. None of us are. Maureen's the mother of nine, Pat's a decorated Army captain, Mike's in the Air Force and was just becoming a big juvenile on Broadway before the war broke out, and Dolores is an accountant who works nights in the munitions plant in Boston. You can't tell us what to do, and you never could. You gave away that right the day you walked out on Papa."
Francesca wrinkled her nose. "He wanted to settle down in that falling-apart theater of his. Either the Royale went and we got back on the vaudeville circuit or I went." She put her arms around her daughter. "Look, Anna, I love your Papa, but I can't live with him. He got this crazy notion that he wanted to stay in New York and make the Royale defy the laws of box office returns. I'm part gypsy. So are you. We're born and bred wanderers, baby. I follow the wind, just like my five-fathers did in Italy a hundred years ago."
"Mama, the wind blew me here. I like it here. I can be anyone here. I can play a society lady on a soap opera and then be a little girl on a kids' show fifteen minutes later. The boys in the Pittsburgh Canteen all keep my picture in their lockers, or at least they say they do. The WACs and WAVEs say they admire me for my gumption, whatever that is."
Francesca hugged her daughter. "If that's what makes you happy, baby...Anna." She held her and for a moment Maple LaMarsh Comstock was little Anna Murdock again, the pretty child with the energy that was as fiery as her thick tresses. "My Anna. I'm so proud of you. I heard some of your broadcasts this morning. This is the best stuff I've ever seen you do. It's sure better than all those rinky-dink burlesque places you used to perform at."
"Yeah," laughed Maple, "and a heck of a lot warmer, too." The two women laughed awkwardly and went to join Victor in the control room.
This war won't last forever...
How will Betty react to Maple and Victor's union? How will Hilary handle having her child without her husband there beside her? Where the heck is Jeff, anyway?
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