Miss Leary's Problem
By MARIE BATTLE
WHAT was it I said? She scratched her head as she sat in the YWCA lounge at Huxley Street in Brook- lyn. Always thi, was a peaceful spot to come after she had done her shopping at Martin's base- ment or window-shopped 44-1 along Jay Street, Borough
Hall. Miss Leary sat on the green velvet settee of the Business and Professional Girls Lounge, rubbing the tight leather of her shoe. One could be sure of a nice quiet time here at the lunch hour. Not many came. One could nibble a sandwich from the catgut-net bag, or even slip off the shoe between peeks from the Lounge door. Today, the toes were sticky be- tween. It was difficult to know whether the nagging pain came from the pressure of her Oxford patent-leather pumps upon the hard out- side corn, or if the soft corn (which people nowadays called athlete's foot) was green in the middle and festering. She couldn't recollect soaking it, violeting it, and powdering it on the night before. In fact, she couldn't recollect much these days, everything had been so topsyturvy since Friday three weeks ago. Yes, it had been April 28. She tried harder to piece together memories of that evening as she quietly slipped off her stocking and furtively rubbed between her pinky toe and its neighbour, as she watched the double door of the Lounge.
Before she had decided it was the outside hard corn which needed soaking and scraping with a razor, she tilted her head to the right, as she pulled the soft, yellow skin from between the toes and shifted in her soft seat as she felt the nice painful sensation at the pull of the skin. Certainly she had 'hurty feet,' but there was something exciting about it as well. She looked forward to these 'toe sessions,' as she called them to herself in a jazzy way: an almost full tub of lukewarm water, fresh smell from her lavender bath salts, nice warm, dry feel from the salmon- coloured robe he had given her three Christmases ago. There was nO struggle with the skin after these good soaks. That is, until you got down to the thin, elastic, colourless part, which she liked to call the 'nitty-gritty.' Then one had to 'take it easy' not get one's self in an 'uproar,' as the Girl Guides would say. One sharp jerk, and you pulled blood. And while this was seldom more painful than the corn, it didn't look right on the crisp white sheets when the maid came in the morning. She knew Miss Leary had passed that stage, and it might put different ideas in her head.
But memories of this htimate• routine were now interrupted by thoughts of what she had done or said wrong on that Friday night. She simply couldn't figure it out. He had been a brick, so dependable, so regular—the one person she could count on all these years: And she counted on her fingers that it had been four in all. Maybe Miss Hunt, her pal at the Y, was right, she should talk it over with someone who knew about such things. This decision was reached during the evening, as she gathered up towel, gentian violet toe medicine, powder for in between, cotton wool, nail file (the one with the sharp edge for easing), and placed them in their proper cubicles in the bathroom cupboard. Yes, she would go to the Family Service.
• But Miss Leary had a bit of a sense of humour, and as she entered the Family Service Bureau on Simmons Street, it suddenly occurred to her that she should have at least five hungry brats and a husband who either drank up all the money or spent it on a mistress. She got hiccups as she thought of the mistress part. Maybe that was what some people would call her—a mistress. This thought was not only a bit bewildering or even distressing, but somehow highly satisfying. She thought of her friend, Miss Fields, who was a resident Girl Reserve Secretary at the Y. There was the rumour which spread like wildfire among the gossipy girls that Miss Fields had a nightly lover, right there in the Y. Not that Miss Leary listened twice to such outlandish talk. But it did please her when Miss Fields whispered one day, as they were having their dessert of prunes with white sauce : 'you've heard the rumours . ssh, ssh, don't tell nobody, but not a word of it's so.' And she had given that girlish, follow-the- gleam, mountain-top giggle, which was mis- chievous enough coming from a camp-fire girl, but at Miss Fields's age was downright sexy.
My word, she thought, as the receptionist came toward her, will they give me a means test? Politely she stood and said who she was and that she would like to talk with one of their social work people about a particular matter. This brought the receptionist up straight and tall. She had categories in her appointment book for 'family matters,' emergency welfare,' marital problems,' employment problems,' etc., but none for 'particular matters.' But Miss Leary stood her ground, in spite of the quizzical look from the fatty receptionist. And she held her ground when the pink-bloused, bouncy, blonde social worker smiled her into the room on the ground floor. At first there was this long silence, and for a time, Miss Leary got the feeling that 'it's me or her . . . either she'll out-silence me or I'll crack hell out of that smugness of hers.' But when she opened her mouth, there was no hint of impertinence in her voice. In clear, precise New England English, she requested help with a 'particular incident' which had arisen. Her boy friend, no, gentleman friend, who had come every Friday for many years had suddenly stopped. Miss Hatfield looked as if her heart would break, and Miss Leary wondered wickedly Whether Miss H was truly the ole-maid she looked, or whether she was getting a little bit from some of the men on the Board. One can never tell. Who on the Third Floor of the Accident Insurance would ever guess that little Miss Leary was carrying on every Friday night from six to ten?
For a time, Miss Leary was stymied by the social worker's eagerness to hear details. To her, there were no details to tell. He had come every Friday, and now he didn't come. And she placed this simple equation before Miss H with- out embroidery. Miss Hatfield was nice enough about it, making it clear that she was no fortune- teller—it would be only on the basis of coming to know her, sharing her difficulties, that she could 'think through her problem.' And this brought Miss Leary to another hiccup. Fancy her having a problem. Lordy how these social work people do go on. There was no problem what- soever. All she wanted was for the lady to tell her how to get Mr. Adams back on Friday nights. No other night, just Friday. No problem. What had happened? Well, the usual routine : the usual ring of the bell at six, dinner ready when he arrived (she always got the meal together on Thursday night, so all she had to do was to lay it out when he came). Miss Leary had read some- where it was always a good thing when enter- taining to have something before, like soup when it's cold, or a' cold melon when it was hot—just to make it a special occasion. That last Friday night, she had cold grapefruit juice laid on. Then, a cold sliced half of chicken, lettuce and tomatoes (she always had tomatoes, he was partial to tomatoes). Then there had been a banana frappd. He ate as usual. Then there was the film, a Joan Bennett, which he wanted to see. The usual coffee after, a little hugging. Not much, he was never one to overdo and this was one of the things she prized in him. A nice, clean man, no funny business. It was such a nice evening. In fact, she remembered saying at the end, `Wouldn't it be nice if every evening were a Friday. . . That's how nice it was. Then Miss Leary stopped suddenly, sat up erect in her chair, and without a word rose from it, to the consternation of Miss H. 'That was it,' was all she said as she left the smiling Miss H. Later on, she had wondered if Miss Hatfield's jaws ached at night the way her feet did. But now, she was carried away with her revelation : 'That was it . . • the conceited little bastard. ...' By the time she reached the puzzled- looking receptionist, she was shaking all over with laughter: `so he thought I wanted to marry him.'