Dorothy slipped into the hardware store, self-conscious about her kerchief and rolled-up dungarees. After the bright sunshine outdoors, the aisles were cool and dim. She walked past the cans of paint and stopped in front of the stains and varnishes.
There it was on the top shelf, just one can of it: INDOOR SATIN ONE-STEP. It sounds like a dance, she thought, and as she lifted it down she gave a little kick and started a twirl.
Only there was a boy watching her, standing in the aisle with his hands in the pockets of his worn dungarees. He smiled at her, eyebrows raised.
“Oh! Excuse me!” she said, and stepped out of his way. The can of stain, which she was holding by its wire handle, clanged into the opposite shelf. She quickly transferred it to her left hand. Why was she so clumsy when anyone was watching?
“S’all right,” the boy said, and came to stand where she had been. He might have been her age, but was probably a little older, maybe even twenty-one. Hard to tell from the back of his head, though she felt certain somehow that his brown hair was the kind that always wanted to stick up a little.
He glanced over his shoulder, and Dorothy started to hurry away. “Hey,” he said. “Is that the Satin One-Step?”
For a moment she thought he had guessed about the dance and was teasing her. “Yes,” she said, lifting the can to show him the label, “but I think it’s the last one.”
He reached up to feel the back of the shelf in case a can was hiding back there. “I’ll ask up front,” he said. “My brother says that’s the only kind that really works without a separate varnish.”
“That’s what my father said too,” Dorothy agreed. “Actually…” She hesitated.
The boy waited. His eyes were still smiling at her. “What?”
Dorothy’s practical side (wasn’t it?) won out. “The shelf I’m refinishing isn’t very big. Mother got it at a tag sale, for my textbooks, and most of the paint was gone, so I sanded it down...anyway, I’m not going to use anything like a whole can of stain. I could hand off the rest to you.”
She felt a blush creep up from her collarbone as she finished this speech, but the boy seemed pleased. “Well, I’m doing a table and a shelf, but neither one is big. Sure you won’t need it all?”
She shook her head. “It’s just a little shelf like this--” she spread her hands to show him the dimensions-- “with two end boards, and a back.”
“Oh, got it. Well then, sure, thanks.” He leaned in to shake her right hand. “I’m Bob Quimby.”
“Dorothy. Dorothy Day.”
“Thanks again, Dorothy.” Bob reached for the can of varnish in her other hand. “Here, let me pay for it at least.”
But she pulled her hand back. “I got first dibs, so I’m buying,” she said.
Bob put his hands up in surrender. “I never argue with first dibs,” he said solemnly, and walked with her to the cash register.
Dorothy, out of breath, hopped off her bicycle and leaned it against the fence of the tennis courts. The courts were empty, but there were several other bicycles there, all of them girls’ bikes. Her sister Bea and the rest of the tennis team must still be back in the gym, wrapping up their practice. Dorothy wished now that she hadn’t rushed off so quickly, practically shoving the can of stain into Bob’s hands. She’d been rattled; she wasn’t usually a girl who lost track of time. Dorothy was usually punctual, and brought a book to read besides.
She wandered past the trees that separated the school grounds from the park. Now that she was graduated from Grant High School, Dorothy felt a little sheepish hanging around campus. Back here several candy wrappers were scattered on the ground and someone had left an old stadium cushion under one of the big trees. It seemed dry and reasonably clean, so Dorothy nudged it with her foot into a patch of sunlight and sat on it.
Dandelions grew better than grass in this dusty spot. Dozens stood around her, all of them gone to seed in balls of fluff. Dorothy picked one, took a deep breath, and blew. All but three seeds floated away. Three o’clock, or was it that she would have three children? Or--she blew again and the remaining seeds flew off--was it how many breaths it took, revealing the first initial of the man she would marry?
“I saw you puffing away over here and at first I thought you were smoking,” said a gleeful voice behind her. Bea stepped around Dorothy and flopped onto the ground.
“Bea, your clothes!”
“I don’t care,” Bea said. “I’m still sweating. We ran shuttles in the gym until I thought I was going to die.” Despite these dire words, Bea looked serene and her clear eyes sparkled. She rolled over, picked two dandelions, and handed one to Dorothy. “You’re thinking about a boy, aren’t you?”
Dorothy tried to hide her surprise. “Why would you say that?” she said, but couldn’t help smiling.
“Please,” said Bea. “Just tell me it isn’t that Bob Packwood with the glasses, from that dance. I thought he finally gave up.”
Dorothy drew herself up straight. “It is Bob…” she waited while Bea clutched her head and groaned, “...Quimby. He’s in college, Bea, and you’d like him. He’s funny and, well, nice.”
Bea blew the fluff off another dandelion. “You’re lucky. High school boys are repulsive.” She tossed the stem aside; a cat who’d been investigating some thrown-away watermelon nearby streaked away. “I just wish I was done with high school, like you, Dot.”
“I’m still going to nursing classes at the hospital,” Dorothy pointed out. “It’s only once in a while we get to do something fun like hold the babies. Mostly it’s sort of like school.” She sighed. “Anyway, we should get to the store before it closes.”
Bea reached down to pick two last dandelions. Once again she handed one to Dorothy, as the girls walked back to the tennis courts. “I’m going to do something that’s nothing like school,” Bea remarked. “Somewhere glamorous, and meet boys who have never heard of Portland. You should come too, Dot. We won’t even remember this boring old summer.”
Dorothy took a deep breath and blew her dandelion clock. “I’ll remember it,” she said.
Bob was using a small brush to daub stain into the corners of his shelf when his brother Jack’s car pulled up to the curb.
“Sorry,” Bob called as Jack got out of the car. “I can move these out of the driveway in a minute.” He hadn’t noticed how long the shadows were already.
“Don’t worry about it,” Jack said, walking up the driveway. “Just tell me why painting two things took you all day.”
“Complications,” Bob said peaceably. “But look, they’re a set now.”
Jack gingerly tipped the shelf back to look inside. “You could say that. Do you have to draw on everything?”
Bob grinned. He had inked the same pattern of fir trees and stars on one of the end table’s panels. A few drops of glue mixed in with the ink made it waterproof as long as you let it dry before the stain hit it. From a couple feet away, Bob thought, it looked like wood-burning.
“They look good,” Jack admitted. “But you won’t get much at the flea market. Sure you still want to sell them?”
“Sure I'm sure. They’re nothing special,” Bob said. “It’s just for book money.” But after Jack went into the house, he stood looking down at the table and shelf a little longer before fetching the garden hose to wash his brushes.
The afternoon sun was warm on his back while the water chilled his fingers. Perfect summer day, Bob thought. The waterproof ink had worked. The table and shelf were ready to sell and then there would be space in his small bedroom for the table from his grandmother’s house, the one he’d sat at all his life to color and draw.
And then there was Dorothy. He smiled, remembering how she’d teased him.
“Oh yes,” she’d said airily as she worked, “you went to college at my high school.”
“For one term! One summer,” he’d protested. The old campus had been destroyed in the flood a few years ago. “Now it’s out at the shipyard, very respectable.”
“Respectable. Really.” Her eyes hadn’t left her brush, but the corner of her mouth quirked.
“No floods. No high schools. And the largest college parking lot in the nation.”
“Maybe the world.”
“Are you learning to build ships?”
“Not exactly,” he said. “But I was thinking maybe I could be an architect.” He hadn’t been thinking it for very long, actually. But he liked the idea--drawing up plans at a drafting board, thinking up new buildings that people would like.
“An architect! That sounds wonderful,” Dorothy agreed. She borrowed his jackknife to scrape off the glue from the tag-sale tag, and their conversation moved on to other topics.
Bob turned off the spigot by the front door and went indoors. The house smelled deliciously of hamburgers, and Jack was slicing a tomato on the kitchen counter.
“Dinner in ten minutes,” he said, pointing the knife tip at Bob. “Don’t go anywhere.”
“No chance,” Bob said. He grabbed the piece of plywood he used for a drawing board and sat down on the couch with a sheaf of paper scraps. Jack’s bald spot gleamed under the kitchen light, so Bob started doodling a bald eagle. He sketched a spatula in the eagle’s talons and drew it flipping a burger.
“A bunch of new jobs got posted today,” Jack said. “I’m thinking of putting in for something with travel.”
“Really?” Bob said. “Travel where?” He added a car zipping up a road, its front fender curved in an eager smile.
“Around the state, maybe farther. Just about every river’s going to have a power station on it soon.” Jack got the lettuce out of the refrigerator. “You know, you could apply too. The money’s good.”
“Classes start in a couple of weeks,” Bob said. “And I already paid the fees for school, with the money from Grandmother.”
He started another drawing, this one realistic. Slowly a girl in a kerchief appeared on the paper, but her eyes gazed in different directions and she seemed to be floating at an angle instead of standing.
“Well, keep it in mind,” Jack said. “I can always put in a word for you.” He handed Bob a plate. “Is that eagle supposed to be me?”
“You’re lucky it wasn’t a buzzard, Baldy.” Bob set the plywood aside and picked up his hamburger. “Have I mentioned you’re a good big brother?”
“You’re cooking tomorrow,” Jack said, then switched to a perfect imitation of their grandmother. “Every kettle must rest on its own bottom, young man.” They ate in companionable silence.
The next morning, Dorothy sat under the cherry tree in the front yard, reading Cheaper by the Dozen. She waved vaguely at the mailman as he passed, but didn’t raise her eyes from the page until he spoke.
“There’s some unstamped mail in your box, Miss Day!” he called from the sidewalk. “Now, according to the letter of the law, that’s not allowed.”
Dorothy didn’t know what to say. “Sorry, Mr. Wylie, I don’t…” she started, then saw that he was smiling. “I’ll go get it now,” she said, closing her book. He winked and continued down the block, whistling.
Inside the mailbox was a folded piece of paper with her name on it, lying among the bills and flyers addressed to her parents. She pulled it out. When she opened it up, she saw a cartoon version of her little bookshelf. It had a face on one end, with a worried expression. Its wiry arms were wrapped around the wooden body, and motion lines made it look like it was shivering. “Need another coat?” said the caption underneath, in letters drawn to look like frost and ice were clinging to them.
At the bottom of the page, Bob had scrawled, “The can didn’t fit in your mailbox! When can I bring it over?” and his phone number, MUrdock 5521.
Dorothy’s face broke into a smile. Forgetting the rest of the mail, she tucked her book under her arm and twirled up the stairs into the house.