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The mink coat sealed it for Grace. When her father brought it home Saturday morning, as a gift for her sister Eve, all her suspicions became real to her. Something strange was happening between Eve and their father. It wasn’t Eve’s birthday. She was only 16 years old. Her family was one step up from being in the poorhouse. It was 1941, in the midst of wartime. Their mother didn’t have a mink coat. In fact, if she didn’t go to work each day at the Troy Laundry company, she likely wouldn’t have a coat at all to get through the wet Seattle winters.
Their Dad, Anton, had been out all night. Not an unusual occurrence. He was a hard drinker, and Grace was glad when he was out of the house. If he was home and drunk, no one was safe.
“Where’s my beautiful girl?” he bellowed, walking through the door with a huge Frederick and Nelson box. Grace and her family had window-shopped downtown at the grand department store, but never could afford to buy anything there.
Eve sauntered out of the bathroom, where she had just finished applying her coat of make-up. Grace marveled at the amount of time and effort Eve spent applying creams and colors to her face.
“Which one of us are you talking about?” Eve said and winked at Grace.
Anton’s laugh boomed through the small apartment. Eve always seemed to be able to make their father laugh. She also got away with making fun of him when Clara, Grace, or their middle brother Russell would be slapped down for back-talk.
“You know who I’m talking about Miss Evie. And I’ve got a helluva surprise for you,” he said, handing her the box.
Eve sat down on the threadbare sofa, just opposite from the old oak dining table where Clara, Grace and Russell were sitting, eating their morning toast and Clara’s homemade jam. Except for a faded overstuffed chair for Anton, a secondhand coffee table and a braided rug, that was the extent of the furnishings in the main room of the apartment they shared, yet it still seemed cluttered given its size.
Eve lifted the lid of the box, her eyes widening. She pulled out a caramel-colored mink coat, lined in satin. She looked to Anton, as if it was some kind of trick he was playing on her. Russell and Grace stared. Clara bowed her head, looking instead at her hands, still red and chapped from her work at the laundry
“Jeepers Pop, are you crazy or something? Where did you get the clams for something like this?” Eve stood up to try on the coat. It fit perfectly, Grace thought, noticing how Eve’s made-up face matched the coat. She didn’t look 16 anymore. Grace was twelve, but to her, Eve seemed much more than four years older.
Anton grinned. “Honey, don’t you worry about it. Old Hal got into some trouble and had to make some quick cash, so he raided his wife’s closet. She’s going to flip her wig when she finds out. But you look like a million bucks.”
Eve stopped twirling around as her father continued to stare at her. She looked to Clara, and they exchanged eye contact briefly before Clara looked away and started clearing dishes from the table.
“Thanks Dad,” Eve said quietly. Anton came over to her and kissed her on her forehead.
“Anything for my beautiful daughter.”
Eve ducked away, going to look at herself in the mirror. “Gracie, I think we should go out walking and watch as all of our poor neighbors see me in this fancy mink. What do you say about taking a stroll with your big sister?”
Eve was quiet as they started walking down the street. It was a cold February day, but not raining. Eve usually walked with purpose, as if she owned the sidewalk, her blonde hair swinging from side to side as she surveyed all that was happening around her. But today, her head hung low, her steps slower.
“That’s sure a pretty coat,” Grace said.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Dad must really like you.”
Eve stopped to look at Grace. “What do you mean by that?”
Grace shrugged her shoulders. “Nothing.”
“What do you mean, ‘nothing’? If you have something to say, spill it.”
“I… I just meant it’s such a nice present. And it’s not even your birthday.”
Eve started walking again, shaking her head. “Yeah, well, you and I know how crazy Dad is. And who knows if he won’t take it back next time he’s short on cash for another bender.”
“That would be terrible,” Grace said, glad to be free from Eve’s stare.
“Yeah, well, worse things could happen.”
Eve stopped again, facing Grace. “Things I hope you never have to go through.” Eve hesitated, looked away, biting her lip. She turned back to Grace, taking her hand. She took a deep, long breath. Grace looked down at her scuffed saddle shoes. “Look at me Grace. I want you to promise me to stay away from Dad. He’s a no-good drunk, and no one should get stuck alone with him. Do you understand?”
Grace didn’t really understand. About a year ago something had changed with Eve. Grace had come home from school, on a day when Eve had stayed home sick, and she was surprised her dad was also there. She could hear him snoring in her parents’ bedroom, just off of the kitchen. Eve was in bed in the room she and Grace shared. When Grace came into the room, she noticed Eve’s eyes were red, her face blotchy. Eve wouldn’t look at her, turning to face the wall when Grace asked her how she was feeling. She didn’t talk to Grace the rest of the night and refused to join the family for dinner. After that, there were more days when Eve missed school, and when Grace came home to find her dad also was home early from his construction jobs. Eve didn’t turn away anymore or stay silent, but she started spending more time in the bathroom fixing her face. Grace wondered where she got the money to buy the makeup, or where the money came from to pay for the new clothes she always seemed to be wearing.
“What if I can’t help it?” Grace asked. “How can I avoid dad if he’s around?”
“You find a reason to get out of the house. Go talk to your Catholic friends, the nuns, or something.” Clara had enrolled Grace in the Immaculate Conception Church school last year, in the hopes Grace might do better than Eve and Russell were doing in their public schools. Their family wasn’t Catholic, or involved in any other religion, but Clara had heard good things about the school through the other women at the laundry. Grace was fascinated by the nuns, with their clean pressed habits, and she loved sitting in the pews, looking up at the high ceilings and the light shimmering through the stained glass. She liked the idea that if she just tried hard enough to be good, then God would be good to her in turn. It seemed so simple.
Eve squeezed Grace’s hand. “Now do you promise me?”
“Okay. I promise.”
Still holding Grace’s hand, Eve resumed the walk, her stride almost back to normal, her head held higher.
There were no more big surprises after that day, at least for a while. Grace would get up early and slip into her Immaculate Conception uniform, a red plaid pleated skirt, white blouse, and red cardigan. She liked to get a seat in the first row to listen to the nuns, especially Sister Mary Elizabeth, who would always smile at Grace, and call on her when she raised her hand. Russell was having trouble in school and started getting into fights in the neighborhood. Russell kept wanting to join the war, but at fourteen, he was much too young to be believed if he tried to lie about his age. Anton frequently beat Russell when he came home with bad grades or a black eye. Sometimes he did it just because he was mad about something, and Clara wasn’t in the room to bear his anger.
Eve stopped going to school in April and started working as a waitress at the Woolworth’s counter, so she was gone most days. And at night, she’d get dressed up and go out. Grace would sometimes see Eve on the street with a group of older friends, many of them men. To Grace, it seemed like they were always having so much fun, but she didn’t get to talk to Eve much anymore. When Eve came home, it was always after Grace had gone to sleep, and Eve was always rushing out in the mornings to get to work.
One night in June, right before school was about to end, Eve was changing from her waitress uniform into a bright red dress and high heels. She said she was going out dancing.
“Who are you going with?” Grace asked, lying on the bed watching Eve rummage through her makeup case for a lipstick shade to match her dress.
“Just a guy. A nice guy though.”
“How come we never get to meet your friends?”
Eve laughed. “Bring them here? I’m afraid they’d take a powder once they met our parents.”
She capped off the lipstick, did a final brush of her hair and grabbed her purse. “I’m out of here, kiddo.”
Just then Anton arrived home.
“Where’s Eve?” he yelled, slamming the door behind him. Clara was stirring a pot of beans on the stove in the kitchen, and Russell was on the couch looking at the latest Superman comic book.
“I’m right here. What’s it to you?”
Anton walked up to her and slapped her hard across her face, then slammed her against the wall. Russell jumped up, trying to pull his father back, and Anton shoved him hard to the floor. Clara started to go to Russell, but stopped midway, as if suspended in place.
Anton put his face up close to Eve. “You whore. You little slut. The guys at the bar say you’re out every night with a different guy, sitting in bars, doing God knows what.”
Eve spat back into his face. “And why should you care?”
“You’re embarrassing our family, cattin’ around like some prostitute.”
Eve shoved him away from her. “I’m embarrassing the family? Gimme a break. Who comes home drunk most nights? Who keeps losing Mom’s paycheck on backroom bets? Who beats his wife and kids so they have to go out on the streets with black eyes and bruises?”
Anton’s fists balled up, and he punched the wall, knocking down an old photo of Clara’s parents. “You are my daughter, and you’ll behave yourself. We didn’t raise you to be a whore.”
Eve, who had started to gather up her things to make a run for the door, stopped in her tracks.
She turned slowly to look at Anton. “You better be careful what you say Pops.”
Anton slammed the wall again. “You can’t tell me what to say. I’m your father, and you’ll do what I say goddammit!”
“Do you want me to tell what you forced me to do before I was even 16? Do you want me to say out loud what you did to me, over and over again? Or should I continue to keep that quiet, as you ordered me to do?”
Anton paused, grew quieter. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He glanced over at Clara, then turned back to Eve. “Besides, who’s going to believe you, out whoring every night.”
Eve stared at him, shaking her head. “Everything I am, I learned from you.”
Anton started toward the door, blocking Eve’s way.
Eve stood fast, head-to-head with Anton. “Out of my way Pops. I’ve got places to go.” She brushed by Anton, pausing at the door. Eve looked over at Grace, trembling at the door of their bedroom, Russell, still on the floor, and then over to Clara, with a dishtowel tightly wound in her hands, shoulders slumped, standing by the sink. “You kiddos take care of yourselves, okay?”
The next morning, as Grace turned the corner heading to school, Eve was leaning up against the side of a building, smoking a cigarette, waiting for her. Grace noticed how tired she looked, still in the red dress and high heels, so out of place in the bright daylight. Grace saw the bruise on her face from where Anton had hit her last night.
“Hey kiddo. Did you survive the big blow-out last night?” Eve asked, putting her arm around Grace.
“Yeah. Dad went right to bed after and didn’t even have any dinner. But then none of us was very hungry.”
“Sorry to spoil your dinner, kid. But that’s the last time I’ll be there to cause any problems, I promise.”
“What do you mean? Are you going somewhere?”
“Yes, and I need your help. I’m moving in with a gal pal of mine and I need my things. Maybe you and Russell can put a couple of bags together for me?”
Grace wanted to help. She had worried about Eve all night. “Maybe I could do it right now. Russell is still at home, and Dad left early this morning for a job.”
Eve smiled, and kissed Grace’s forehead. “That would be swell kiddo. I’ll wait here, and my pal’s place is just a couple blocks away.”
Grace started to run home.
“And whatever you do, don’t forget to pack my makeup case.”
Grace quietly let herself in just in case her dad had come home. She heard someone in the bathroom, figuring it was Russell. She headed toward the bedroom when her mother emerged.
“Mom! What are you doing here? I thought you were Russell.”
Looking at Grace, Clara saw the image of herself at that age. So fresh, and curious about life. She wished Grace could stay rooted in time, at least for a while.
“Russell just left for school. At least I hope that’s where he is going. He probably would have slept all day if I hadn’t surprised him coming home.” Clara leaned heavily against the wall. “I tried to work this morning, but I just didn’t have it in me, and the gals suggested I head home.” She took Grace’s hand, giving it a squeeze. “I guess I should ask what you are doing here. Aren’t you supposed to be on your way to school?”
“I was on my way…”
“But now you’re back home? How come?”
Grace knew she had to tell the truth. There was no way she could sneak Eve’s things out of the house with her mother there. “I ran into Eve. She asked if I could get her things.”
Clara clasped her hands together, looking down at Grace. With Grace growing so fast, it wouldn’t be long before she would be looking up at her, just as she now did with Russell and Eve. It made her feel more tired than ever.
“Are you mad at me?” Grace asked.
Clara shook her head, her tired eyes examining Grace’s face. “No honey, not at all. You’re being a good sister, that’s all.” Clara lightly brushed Grace’s hair with her hand. “I wish I could be as good as you are, Grace. Let me help you.”
It didn’t take long for Grace and Clara to find an old suitcase and a couple of worn pillowcases and get everything packed up for Eve. There was room for everything but the mink coat.
“What should we do with this?” Grace asked.
Clara looked at the coat and sighed. “Your father…” She sat down heavily on the bed.
“What about him?” Grace asked, sitting down next to her mom.
“He’s a mixed-up man, Grace. And a bad man, in many ways. But I should have known. I should have done something.” Clara looked over at Grace, putting her arm around her. “But I won’t let what happened to Eve happen to you. I promise you that.” She squeezed Grace tightly, then let go, standing up and pulling the mink down from the hanger. “As for this, we’ll let Eve decide. Now let’s get out of here.”
It looked like Eve hadn’t moved since Grace left her, except she was shivering a bit from the morning air, without a coat.
“Mom, what are you doing here?”
Clara set down the suitcase and one of the stuffed pillowcases. Grace was standing with the other pillowcase, the make-up case, and the mink half in her hands and half on her shoulders.
“I wasn’t doing so well at work, so I came home to rest up a bit.”
“You going to be okay?”
Clara shrugged. “I’ll be fine, honey. How about you?”
“Well, it’s been a long night, and I’m ready to get some shuteye myself. How about we go to my new place, and I’ll show you around. It’s so small it will take about ten seconds, believe me.” Eve reached over for the suitcase.
Clara seemed unable to move. “Evie. I… I think I’ll let you girls go ahead.”
“You sure you’re going to be okay?” Eve asked, looking Clara over.
“I’ll be fine, honey.” She stood still, looking so small in her faded muslin dress, hands hugging her shoulders, as if she couldn’t get warm enough. “We weren’t sure if you wanted the coat, so we brought it along just in case.”
Eve stood silently for a moment, staring at the mink. She then pulled it from Grace’s hands, wrapping it around herself. “There’s a lot of things I think about when I see this coat,” she said, her hands with their bright red nail polish smoothing the fur. She raised her head and looked at Clara. Clara opened her mouth to say something, but no words came out, and she looked away. Eve slowly turned towards Grace, putting her hands in the pockets of the big coat, exaggerating a shiver. “But I’m a practical gal, and right now I’m freezing. So thanks for bringing it along.” Eve started to go, with Grace following behind.
“Evie!” Clara called out, wiping her eyes. She still hadn’t moved from where she had been standing. “I’m sorry.”
Eve set down her things and walked over to Clara. Grace noticed how much bigger Eve was, in those high heels and that mink coat, compared to her too-thin, pale mother with the worrying hands. Eve gave her a big hug, and then pulled back, holding on to Clara’s shoulders.
“You come around and visit some time, okay?” She turned away, grabbed her things, and motioned for Grace to follow. “Let’s get a move-on Gracie. You’ve got to get off to school or you’ll catch hell from those crazy nuns.”
Brian Christopher Giddens (he/him) is a writer of fiction and poetry. Brian’s writing has been featured in Silver Rose, On the Run Fiction, Glass Gates Collective, Roi Faineant, Flash Fiction Online (pending publication), Hyacinth Review (pending publication), and Evening Street Review (pending publication). Brian is a native of Seattle, Washington, where he lives with his husband, and Jasper the dog. Brian can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and his photo haikus can be found on Instagram@giddens394.