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Supporting Cast

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 27, 2012

From the Improvement Era, November 1931 –

Supporting Cast

By Alberta Huish Christensen

“The role of married ‘grad’,” Nell had often said, lifting her blond brows dramatically, “is one – if ever there was one – which needs bolstering.”

If Gloria Brent was of the same opinion, she had never said so. The two girls living amiably in adjoining apartments had never discussed the matter. Both were wives of graduate students and living on – oh, what does it matter – so little that it takes one’s breath away just to think of it. And common interests had bound them together with a warm tie of understanding.

Perhaps such an idea did lie dormant somewhere in Gloria’s brain, perfectly conscious of its own existence, though undisturbed, unformulated until that night in late May.

Gloria glanced hurriedly at the alarmclock on the oilcloth-covered shelf above the sink.

“Orange juice time, young man,” and “Num-num,” she added with a grimace as she dumped the brimming spoon of cod-liver oil into the nursery mug.

Jim Junior showed little interest in the performance, but continued to run his chubby forefinger across the tray of his unpainted high chair.

“Num-num,” Gloria repeated, bringing the cup nearer to his lips. “Junior Brent, you simply must take it at once. With Saturday and washing I’ve no time to dally.”

Junior gulped the vitamined draught and Gloria dabbed at his oily chin with a corner of his bib. She pecked a hurried kiss upon his round hairless head, and, adjusting the covers of his crib, pushed it near the bedroom window. “Sleep time, you dear,” and the door was closed behind her.

With systematic movements, result of much experience, she continued the laundry processes until the last clean, wrung clothes were piled high in the basket. Wiping the beads of perspiration from temples and chin she balanced the basket upon the high railing and stood for a moment on the diminutive porch, large enough to accommodate little more than the garbage can.

What a day it was! Beautifully clear, with no mist diffusing the ragged sky line across the water. She could even see up Market Street quite plainly on such a day. Funny she had never noticed before that Goat Island loomed so darkly against a silver-blue sky.

“Oh, Nell,” she called, descending the long narrow steps.

Nell, blond and colorfully smocked, appeared on the porch at the other end of the apartment house.

“Washing today?”

“Goodness no,” from Nell emphatically. “Didn’t you see the lines I filled yesterday?”

“Well, then, I’ll use your front one. I’ve more things than usual.”

“Some early bird you are,” Nell said as she descended the steps and surveyed the lines of dripping garments.

Gloria’s face brightened. “Had to. I had some little extras to do today. In fact it’s rather a special day.” Then walking nearer, that the occupant of apartment 2 could by no chance overhear, she asked, “can you smell it?”

“Grand. It’s acacia blooms, and have you seen the campus lately?”

“Bother, it’s not spring air I’m talking about.” Gloria’s lips widened whimsically, “It’s chicken, really.”

“Extravagant!”

Now Gloria Brent had never known even the smallest measure of extravagance. Her own home had of necessity been managed upon lines of moderate economy. After her college graduation came marriage, and then the school-game had begun. She wondered just when it really was that she began budgeting or remodeling clothes of indefinite age. On matters of such longevity her memory was not too clear. It was rather nice to be called a spendthrift.

“Listen,” she admitted presently, as if a frugal conscience could not longer stand such accusation, “Saturday night I added up the groceries and what do you know? We were six dollars ahead of schedule.”

“Really!”

“Really.” Gloria went on. “I guess it’s the canned goods sale. Anyway I decided to celebrate – surprise Jim tonight. Guess how long we’ve been married.”

“Why, it’s your wedding day! You look young enough, Gloria, to be only a Soph.”

“Applesauce!” It wasn’t true. Gloria knew she looked every day of her twenty-six years. But she also knew that her pink cheeks were still smooth and her figure was girlishly slender.

“Three years today. It doesn’t seem possible and yet, Nell, it sometimes seems that Jim’s been going to college for ages. It seems so long since that night. The moon was awfully big and oh it sparkled.” She unconsciously rubbed the glistening diamond upon her sleeve.

“Yes, three years,” Gloria repeated almost languorously. There had been that first year of teaching in a small western town right after graduation, and then two years more of college – two years of graduate work at the university.

“That’s right,” Nell said, “one more year and you folks can frame the sheepskin, wear it on your backs if you want to. Doesn’t that sound grand!”

Gloria nodded. “And when we get to that point, Nell, with all the molecules, atoms and electrons chucked safely behind us, with only the last flourishes to do, I’ll be so thrilled I’ll serve chicken every day for weeks. Not chopped meat, or teensy wee pot roasts, but big, juicy chickens – honest I will.”

“You little spendthrift!”

“Really I will,” Gloria answered without the slightest thought as to what she was actually saying. “With scrimping and scheming all behind and thoughts of a real salary ahead, who wouldn’t, Nell, who wouldn’t?”

“You and Jim are so young, you can soon make up for the lean years,” Nell said encouragingly. “And with your teaching –”

“Course that does help a lot, even with paying Ella.”

Ella was the very round and tied-in-the-middle girl who lumped up the front steps each morning at nine and lumped down the front steps each afternoon at five. It was she, who, following detailed instructions, helped the well cooked cereal to disappear, saw that no pins or buttons found their way to Junior Brent’s avid lips, and took him for his daily sunning in the back yard.

“I’ll send you in a leg just to nibble on,” Gloria said, tiptoeing to hang the last shirt upon the line.

“Don’t you do anything of the sort,” Nell protested. “There won’t be enough, honey.”

“Sure there will, it’s a big one. Positively a beauty.”

Gloria scarcely knew where the day went. The hours of her one weekday at home were always too brief, too brimming with tasks requiring her own supervision and attention. Ella was dependable with children, that was something, and so Gloria did not object to the Saturday catch-up on duties left undone during the week. She could feel each day that Junior at least was not being neglected.

Dusk came – crimson and yellow in the cloud-ribbed west, and faded into the mellow mauve of nacreous clouds. In apartment 3 Junior played, was fed, was asleep. It was dark. Gloria Brent was waiting. Still waiting. She had been waiting since – when was it that she opened the oven door and exclaimed with utter satisfaction that the chicken was a huge success?

She pricked the smooth brown surface and sampled the dressing. Jim loved chicken cooked just that way. He’d say she was some cook, this Frau of his, and would wish that every day was an anniversary to get such treats.

Gloria closed the oven promptly to prevent even the slightest bit of savory aroma from making escape. She scanned the breakfast nook. Everything was perfect: tender vegetables steaming hot, colorful salad and the jello well set. There was a puff of cream and a sprinkle of nuts – anniversaries did not come every day. She looked caressingly at the gleaming silver, and then listened. There was a step upon the front porch.

But all this happened hours before. There had been innumerable steps upon the front porch since then. At eight o’clock she had closed the kitchen door with a sigh of disappointment.

Maybe Jim had called at the library. Maybe – maybe he had gone to purchase something, some little remembrance. Of course not jade, but perhaps some fine sheer hose with a dull finish. Gloria stretched out a well shaped leg in anticipation. Nonsense, the shops would be closed. Perhaps it would be candied fruits. He might be buying something. last year he did.

Gloria caught her breath quickly. Could she ever forget that day a year ago, with lunch at Pex and then the walk through the campus, the big green campus with its magnolia trees and flower edged paths? Then they had climbed to the very top of the hill behind the stadium and sitting upon a grassy knoll, they had watched the day slip out.

The bay had been all magic in the quiet dusk, with a faint mist hovering low. There were boats, too, like painted dream ships far out on the water. Just as the twinkle of lights began to illumine the long new pier, Jim had gathered her in his arms and pressed her cheek against his own. He had held it there ever so long, saying, “Frau, Frau, what ever would I do without you!” Jim had called her that ever since he “passed-off” his languages. She loved his mellow intonation of the word.

And then he had taken from his pocket a neat little box. “It’s only a trifle, hon,” he said, “just to tell you what a good sport I think you are.”

There had been a happy tear or two in her eyes, thrust back, while deft fingers anxiously removed the tissue.

“Wonderful, Jim – just gorgeous,” and she had put the frail chain at once around her soft, quivering throat.

But that had been a year ago; before experimentation began in earnest, when atomic weights and quantum theories had been to them merely a part of a complex, unexplored world.

At night o’clock Gloria sat upon the cretonne covered couch impatiently thumbing a magazine. Why couldn’t she seem to settle down to things? She would read. She loathed neurotic, impatient women. Yes, she would read. She scanned the pages and her glance hung for an instant upon this title or that. Bother – what did she care about the status of Russia or the futility of farm relief? No, she would not read. She would turn on the radio.

She walked across the room and opened a door. Quite mysteriously a flood of sound burst from the disc speaker upon the mantel. Jim had assembled the radio himself, concealing the “internal anatomy” within an adjacent closet for want of a cabinet. So clever Jim was!

A favorite symphony but much too loud. “That’s better,” she said having adjusted the volume to the satisfaction of a finical mood. “Music makes things so much cozier.” Other nights might be lifeless but this one, this one must be warm and living. She could not let it sink to the dull level of mediocrity. Surely Jim would come soon.

At ten o’clock Nell rapped softly on the door. “I just thought I’d slip in and extend congrat–” she began, but the sight of Gloria Brent sitting dejectedly among the cushions checked her words. She knew intuitively that Jim was still at the university, and that the chicken, yes, the surprise chicken, stood stiff and cold. She knew that being the wife of a potential Ph.D. did not appeal to Gloria Brent, at present, as being a particularly rosy state.

“What you reading?” Nell sought a more tactful approach.

“Oh, nothing.” Gloria adjusted the cushions to make more room upon the couch. “But if I were ever to wax literary,” she continued with definite emphasis upon the personal pronoun, “it would be to voice a protest.”

“What?”

“Protest, and vigorous enough to start a rebellion.”

Nell gurgled a little. “How ferocious! Any maneaters enlisted yet?”

Gloria laughed too. “Not yet, but I know of one who would.”

“Come on now, honey, what’s the matter?”

“Nothing – but –” the tone of her words invited further inquiry.

“Sure there is.”

“Well, Jim hasn’t come home yet and tonight was our –”

“Silly goose, is that all?” I thought at first he had flunked his ‘prelims’ or the landlord had raised the rent.”

Gloria conceded a wry smile.

“Gloria,” Nell went on, “I saw the Old Lemon squeezer today with a new hat, so naturally I assumed he had raised somebody’s rent.”

And then they both laughed, a laugh which began heartily but faded away into a sort of lifeless ripple.

“Have you ever wanted,” Nell began seriously, “something right badly, even when you knew it was perfectly hopeless? Something quite trivial, and yet wanted it!”

“Have I!” Gloria offered with positive accent, as if any inflection of voice could possibly express how well she knew.

“The chemistry grads are giving a party tonight. Alicia’s been coaxing me to go. I’d want to go too, I guess, if I had a decent thing to wear. You see it’s a new frock I’m wanting.”

“I suppose Alicia has a new one– something smart and gorgeous.” Gloria’s voice savored of envy.

“Has she! a darling thing. Long and shimmery. You’d look grand in one like it, Gloria, with your dark hair and fair skin.”

Gloria’s brown eyes fairly snapped. “For goodness’ sake, Nell, don’t dare mention new plumage to me on a night like this. I could eat up the whole university – test tubes and all.”

“Bravo,” Nell laughed. “Well, under the circumstances, I don’t think I’ll go, though Alicia says we’re both dubs to stick at home. To her this school-game is merely a lark.”

“She would. It’s pretty soft for her all right. Not every dad can afford to keep two, year in and year out.” Gloria was recalling Jim’s persistent struggle against financial odds.

“Yes, they get a fat check from home each month. And Alicia says you and I are hopelessly naive and old-fashioned, having babies. If we were the least bit modern and sophisticate, she says, we wouldn’t need to be scrimping along. There’s too many mouths in this world to be properly fed now, she says.”

“Old-fashioned,” Gloria repeated, thinking the while of a certain little crib under the window in the next room. There was something luring about the word, even though she knew it had come from Alicia’s lips spiked with irony.

“Maybe I am old-fashioned,” she snapped, “and I guess her mother was old-fashioned having her. That’s what I guess. Anyway, I wouldn’t trade for a million, and her husband won’t ever make a chemist. Not in a thousand years, for all his fat checks. He doesn’t know what work even looks like. He couldn’t pour water through a funnel. Isn’t that catty, Nell! Now I’ll be good.”

When Nell had gone, Gloria shed a few tears. Not that she meant to. Somehow they just came, uninvited, and refused discipline. And as they fell, she voiced in sobbing tones things about love and college, laboratories that killed romance, experiments that made men ignore anniversaries. Jim didn’t love her, she guessed. She’d just tell him so!

At twelve-thirty there was a soft step upon the porch. Someone was rustling keys. Gloria started, wiped her eyes carefully and flipped a powder puff over her nose.

Jim – tall and broad shouldered – entered, leaning his brief case against the wall near the door. His face was without animation, without color. He neared the couch and stooping, kissed Gloria casually upon the forehead.

“I hope you enjoyed the evening,” Gloria said quite savagely.

Jim looked at her a bit startled. before he had time to speak Gloria was continuing in tones that were far from suave. “And pray, Mr. Scientist, how’s work at the lab?”

“Rotten,” he said with decision, sitting heavily into the low rocker and running the palm of his hand across his forehead.

Gloria had almost dared to hope that his had been a crucial point – a night of important discovery. He had a good head, she knew it. The department fellows had all said that in math Jim Brent was simply a bear.

“Worked like old Harry,” Jim went on, “all evening to finish up a particular piece of work, and then right at the last the whole thing blew up. A month’s work on apparatus gone to the deuce.”

“Honest, Jim? Then tonight wasn’t –”

“Wasn’t anything but a begin-again point.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. What she wanted to say was, “Let’s quit the whole blamed business, Jim, and be content with a job somewhere.” But the soft light from the shabby little floor lamp was shining upon his face, and Gloria saw that it was tired. His eyes, too, wide blue ones, were a little bloodshot.

With a sudden thought Jim jumped to his feet. “By the way, Frau, how would you like to go back to Benton?”

Gloria stared in astonishment. “What do you mean, Jim?”

“I simply mean that you can. Found a letter in my pigeon-hole tonight and it’s from George. An offer to head his sales department. A real one, too.” Jim was burrowing among the papers in the brief case.

“Honest, Jim!”

“Honest, Abe,” Jim’s face was radiant. “Can’t imagine how he limbered up to such a salary. Things must be booming back there.”

Gloria seized the letter. She read it breathlessly. She re-read every word of it– “dynamic personality, dependability” – her heart beat increasing its tempo as the salary figures loomed in bold, black type before her eyes. “A real salary,” she sighed. “Mr. James Richard Brent, what do you intend to do about it?”

“Well, Mrs. James Richard Brent, I just think I’ll sign my name on the dotted line. Fancy, my dear,” he went on, “a real house, yes, a house with porches and lawns and perhaps a garden, instead of this cooped-up, two-by-four apartment. Clothes, Gloria – swell ones – and maybe a car. No more scrimping and squeezing, and no more school teaching. Imagine it, Frau.”

Gloria was imagining; visualizing beyond reality the rapture of it all. A home, with sunlight and flowers, hours of companionship with Junior. Clothes – lovely feminine things – not let-downs with added tulle, desperate attempts to meet the demands of a later mode. Yes, some really new clothes.

“Oh, Jim, it’s just too –” But Gloria did not finish the sentence. She sank down on the couch and eyed him with quiet, level eyes for a moment. Something within her told her that Jim’s enthusiasm was more apparent than real. Told her that it was being forced – propped. Told her that with acceptance of this offer, a life’s dream would be shattered. A seed sown so long before, nourished at such cost through the years, would never reach fruition.

“That’s a neat figure,” Jim was saying mechanically. “More than I could expect for some time even with my degree.”

Gloria knew it to be so. Knew that there might be lean years even after the finals were over. Professors were not always well paid. Scientists seldom were. But she knew, too, that the balances were set – that the offer would demand sacrifice of a hope that had gilded Jim’s sky since boyhood. Ever since she could remember Jim, he had talked of becoming a scientist. His big, useful hands had thrilled to the touch of a slide rule.

Why, why had the letter come tonight? Tonight, when her very heart was crying a hungry cry for all that such an offer could bring! Why had it come! It was as if, out of the utter blackness of storm, stars had begun to gleam. As if hope, gasping in that dim interim between life and death, had suddenly been caught to life by miracle. And yet before her the path was marked. Gloria knew she must not let Jim accept this offer.

“Why, Gloria, dear, aren’t you thrilled – aren’t you?”

Gloria shook her head, scarcely daring to trust her voice. “No, Jim,” she said slowly, “I don’t think I’d accept that offer if I were you.”

Jim’s eyes widened with surprise. “Course I shall, Gloria.” There was firmness in his tone. “I’ve been a cad to ask you to go skimping along, living on nothing, denying yourself things I know you’ve wanted. I see it now. I ought to have left you free till I’d finished. Besides, that’s a tempting offer.”

Gloria managed a light bit of laughter. “You old dear,” she said, “why, it’s a real lark.” Somehow the words stung. Alicia had said that – Alicia who knew so little about it all.

Jim sprang to his feet, his whole face beaming. “You mean you don’t want to give this school game up – don’t you, Frau?”

“Not for worlds, Jim. It’s such fun planning.” It was out. She had said it. After all she supposed she meant it. There had been moments of ecstasy, glad hours of dreams, months and months of sharing. And something in that sharing had bound them infinitely close.

“Remember, Gloria,” Jim’s voice was reminiscent, “the night I asked you if you were willing to take the chance. Remember?”

A wave of color surged into Gloria’s cheeks. Could she ever forget! “Course I do, Jim. It was the night you gave me this ring, the night of the senior play. You carried the lead – made a hit, too.”

Jim flushed a little. “Bunk, course I didn’t.”

There was silence for a moment. A silence teeming with inarticulate memory. “Well, you know, Gloria,” Jim broke it by saying, “I knew where you were sitting down in the dark. Sounds queer but somehow you seemed to be of the cast, a sort of composite of all the characters. I had a feeling that it was you, and not their cues that kept me going. Sustained me at high tide right to the end. You were, I’d say, the supporting cast. Still are, Frau – still are.”

He held her face in his hands. “Why, Frau, you’ve been crying.”

“Course I haven’t, silly, are my eyes red? Just reading and dozing, you know me, Jim.” She twisted the button on his coat sleeve. “Aren’t you hungry?”

“Famished, honey, positively famished. I could eat a whole chicken, feathers and all.”

Gloria was in the kitchen instantly.

“I say, Frau,” Jim called, hanging his coat over the back of a chair, “we have an anniversary coming up this month, don’t we?”



6 Comments »

  1. Ugh! Dreams don’t have to come true to be worthwhile.

    Where is the honor in the notion that women must spend their lives sacrificing for ungrateful men?

    Comment by The Other Clark — July 27, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

  2. I think it’s a nice love story. Not unrealistic.

    Comment by Carol — July 27, 2012 @ 10:26 pm

  3. It’s interesting to see what things have changed and what things haven’t in grad student spouse life, between 1931 and now. I wonder what point the author was trying to make…whether she was idealizing the self-sacrificing of the main character, or whether she was making a wry statement about the husband’s lack of consideration for his wife’s feelings. On the one hand, the husband forgets their anniversary. On the other hand, he also offers to give up his dream to make their lives more comfortable and acknowledges her role in his achievements. Is her rejection of his offer a silly, unneeded sacrifice by the wife? Or a manifestation of love? Does she lie about the tears because she is ashamed of them? Or because he just offered to drop the degree and that made her feel he cared? Is this a story about oppresive gender roles, or about love and partnership? Interesting. I wonder what she would have answered about the anniversary, and what he would have done when he realized he had forgotten…

    Comment by Maile — July 30, 2012 @ 11:34 pm

  4. I think the petty stuff is forgotten, but the lasting stuff is given proper priority. The date that you celebrate an anniversary is petty. Tears in a moment of weakness that you have already gotten over is petty. Sacrifices that strengthen your marriage are lasting. They both passed that test. They’ll probably laugh about the anniversary and celebrate the traditional way later, but remember this day as an important milestone.

    Comment by Carol — July 31, 2012 @ 8:59 am

  5. I agree with both of Carol’s comments.

    Comment by jks — July 31, 2012 @ 1:02 pm

  6. I believe if you knew the author the answers would be readily apparent, because they are bits and pieces of experiences in her own life. It is a story of love and sacrifice and yes, partnership. And this man, after he graduated, became a scientist who headed the team that developed the underwater sonar crystal that was used in WWII. After the war he left his lucrative job to take his wife, who suffered with asthma, back to a better climate. Their lives were a great example to me. I am their granddaughter.

    Comment by Ellen — January 29, 2013 @ 11:51 am

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