“The Cat’s Meow” by Allie Gifford, Cottage Grove High School
Honorable Mention, High School Level, 2019
The Cat’s Meow
By Allie Gifford
Cottage Grove High School
“Mary!” Helen cried. “You look like the bee’s knees, sweetheart!” Twenty-one-year-old Mary managed a nervous smile, then smoothed her canary-yellow dress to the hemline, just above her knee. She tucked her flat, coordinating purse under her arm, and with her long, wool coat draped over the other, climbed gingerly into the black jalopy.
“Thanks, Helen,” she replied.
Helen glanced over from behind the steering wheel as they roared down the main drag. “All right, out with it. What’s wrong?”
“I just can’t help being so nervous. Helen, are you sure he’s a nice guy?” Helen gave a belly laugh that didn’t help to soothe Mary’s nerves.
“Just don’t take any wooden nickels and you’ll be fine, I promise. And if it doesn’t work out, just let me know how much cash he’s got wrapped up in that family business of his.” This evoked a smile from Mary as she thought of Helen’s reputation for being a gold digger. It faded as she felt the butterflies return to a flutter in her stomach.
“What if he doesn’t like me? I’m no bearcat like you.” Helen looked at her and sighed sympathetically, the Lucky held between her right fingers giving off smoke.
“Honey, he may be a cake eater, but you’re the cat’s meow!”
“I only hope you’re right,” Mary thought to herself as they at last pulled up to the Carlyle Mansion.
“Listen, Honey,” Helen reassured her friend. “Don’t worry. I’ll be around if you need anything. Well, unless I happen to meet Mr. Right tonight.”
Mary smiled, thankful for her friend. She pushed open the car door, wrapped her coat tighter around herself, took a deep breath and walked up the wide concrete steps leading to the main entrance of the enormous home.
The inside was bright and warm. Almost too warm. She could hear jazz music blasting from a record player down the hall, along with stuffy chatter. Mary took a deep, shaky breath then followed her friend’s confident lead toward the drawing room, the Lucky still tight between her fingers. Helen glanced behind her as she pressed her hand to her bobbed, blonde hair tucked neatly under a fashionable cloche. When she saw Mary lagging behind, she marched back and took her by the elbow and led her to a table in the corner.
“What if he doesn’t like me?” Mary whispered.
“Applesauce. Honey, I know you have the heebie-jeebies, but you have got to give it a chance—you’re sure to like him. He’s a real looker.”
Mary found herself nodding along. “Copacetic.”
Helen grinned at her, then looked around at the lively, gay crowd now dancing the Charleston. She spotted a group of upstage men dressed in double-breasted, pinstripe suits, with a vest and tie, and round-top white hats mingling with hotsy-totsy women. They appeared to be talking, laughing, and sipping down giggle water. Helen whispered into Mary’s ear, and gestured toward the group. Mary noticed an older, stern, and important looking man in the group, smoking a cigar—possibly the host, whom she understood to be a wealthy newspaper owner. Then Mary let out a quiet gasp as a younger gentlemen stepped back from beside the older man. It was HIM! She knew it had to be him. For a moment, she was taken aback by his charm. She heard him let out a jovial chuckle as he conversed with the men and the ladies who were so obviously flirting with him.
“Doesn’t he look swell?” Helen whispered. Mary couldn’t help but agree as she gazed at his dirty blond hair and striking blue eyes. His two-tailed suit hinted at his wealth. If anything, his looks just made her more anxious. She wished she could absorb some of Helen’s pep. Maybe she wouldn’t be so jittery. Before Mary had a chance to object, Helen grabbed her arm and lugged her toward the group.
“Excuse me, James. I’d like to introduce you to Mary Thompson. Mary, this is James Carlyle.” James turned and gave Mary a smile that sent her heart pattering. Mary could feel heat rise through her cheeks, despite her greatest efforts to appear nonchalant.
“Pleasure to meet you,” he responded. For just a moment, Mary could see a depth in his eyes that went beyond the superficiality of the lavish jovial surroundings. She longed to know this man.
Suddenly, Mary felt panic rise in her chest. “What do I say? What do I say?” The thoughts flooded her mind. “Say something!” Her brain screamed. Finally, Mary simply looked at him and smiled. “Likewise,” she said. Then awkward silence. Helen interjected,
“Mary’s a file clerk for the bank downt—.” A shrill laugh cut off her words. James turned back to the group. His father put an arm around him, gesturing with his smoky cigar. James didn’t look back. Mary felt as if her heart had fallen into her stomach.
“I need some air.” Mary whispered, half-choking. Helen looked at her sadly.
“All right, hon, I’m gonna go see about a rich bachelor.” Helen winked at her before going off to join another group of people.
Outside, Mary let the cool air fill her lungs, which helped her feel a bit better. She pressed her hands against her face. What would she tell Mother? She would want to know every detail about the party. In fact, all she ever talked about these days was how Mary needed to hurry up and marry a good, wealthy young man before she became an old maid. Mary groaned, debating her options before deciding to go inside and meet back up with Helen.
Mary hovered near her friend the rest of the night. She would occasionally glance James’s way, yearning for another chance to speak with him—only without the awkward silence this time. But her hopes were in vain; for he never came to her, and the only looks she thought she saw aimed in her direction were probably just toward the wealthy debutantes who were in no short supply. Occasionally Helen would pat Mary’s arm sympathetically, smiling sadly, before going back to flirting with rich men—both young and old. No one seemed to want to talk to Mary. She felt silly in her new dress, her hair seemed too short. She almost felt ugly standing next to the beautiful, rich women. She didn’t even have an attractive personality like Helen. Despite her inner turmoil, Mary put on a brave face, smiling brightly and laughing softly with Helen. The party couldn’t end soon enough. Pulling on her coat felt like being wrapped safely in her grandmother’s embrace.
The girls’ pointy shoes clicked on the stone steps as they carefully stepped from one step to the next. Mary was just about to slide into the car, when a shout stopped her.
Mary spun around, surprised. A man ran down the stairs toward her. James?
“Mary,” James said panting slightly. “It was Mary, right?” Mary nodded, unable to find her voice again. “I’m so sorry about earlier, I wanted to talk to you.” He raked his hand through his hair. “My father has been putting a lot of pressure on me, and expects me to take on the family business. He made it clear earlier that I should show all those people a good time, and we’ll . . . ” He bit his lip. “Say, Mary—Would you like to go out for a drink sometime, to make up for tonight?”
Mary, both confused and elated, unable to stop the grin that slowly spread from one cheek to the other. Then, realizing she needed to speak, managed a reply, “That’d be swell.”
That night, Mary could think of nothing more than the curious turn of events and her longing to see James again. Then like a ship sent off to sea, she drifted peacefully and quietly into her world of dreams.