I open my eyes and leave my head resting on Frank’s shoulder. Long fingers of end-of-day sun shoot in and out of the trees along the side of the highway, flashing like the final moments of a movie reel. It’s not late, but car trips always make me sleepy. Not to mention the excitement of the day. After we left Bartlesville, we picked up Route 66 on the outskirts of Vinita, and have been on it ever since. One road to Joplin. We should enter the city limits any minute now.
“How are you feeling, Mrs. Davis?” Frank asks.
“Mmm, I had the most wonderful dream.” I yawn. “We got married and my daddy made a heartfelt toast at the reception.”
“That’s no dream. I’ve got a copy of the license right here,” Frank says, tapping his breast pocket, “and I will be more than happy to review it with you once we reach the hotel. Whatever it takes to make you comfortable on our wedding night.”
“Our wedding night,” I say with a sigh that rings with trepidation.
“Bessie, all kidding aside,” he says, putting a hand on my leg, “we’ve got the rest of our lives together. We can take things as slowly as you want.”
“What if I don’t want to take things slowly?” I put my hand on his thigh and give it a squeeze.
“Fast is also an option,” Frank says with a laugh. Frank has the most glorious laugh. It always reminds me of water bouncing down stones in a stream.
“What’s the hotel like?” I ask.
“Oh, The Connor is the finest hotel in Joplin—might be the finest in Missouri. Nothing but the best for my girl.” His voice bubbles up where my ear presses against his jacket—sweet and thick, like honey. “Wait ‘till you see the lobby. Italian marble and patterned tile everywhere. There’s a grand staircase with marble steps. And you enter the lobby underneath a canopy made of bronze and glass. It’s really something.”
“Sounds beautiful. Have you stayed there before?”
“No, I’ve never stayed there. Tonight will be a first.” He kisses the top of my head. “When I lived in town, I ate at several of the hotel restaurants.”
“Several?” I ask.
“Oh, yes. At one point, I think the Connor boasted three dining rooms, a café, and a nightclub, not to mention the rooftop garden.”
“Rooftop garden—I like the sound of that, tell me more.” I burrow my head deeper into his shoulder and close my eyes again.
“Atop the Connor used to be the swankiest spot in town. I don’t know if it’s still as popular as it was when I was young. They decorated it with tall plants and twinkling lights. You could see the entire city from up there. It was magical.”
“When was the last time you were there?”
“Gosh, I suppose it was right before I shipped out for basic training. The hotel put on a dinner dance for servicemen about to head to Camp Funston,” Frank’s voice trails off.
“Was Annie with you that night?” Even with my eyes closed, I feel him nodding. I lift my head off his shoulder and look up at the side of his face. Frank keeps his eyes on the road. “I don’t mind you talking about Annie. Your first marriage is part of who you are, and I love who you are.” I pat his leg and my fingers turn circles on the brushed fabric of his new slacks. “I know how much you want to reconcile with your brother. Is there still a chance Annie and Pete will come down for the picnic at your sister’s house tomorrow?”
“There’s a good chance,” he says. Frank clears his throat and his brow furrows.
“What are you worried about, honey?”
“I’m worried it’s not fair to you. What kind of guy throws his new bride into a complicated family drama on their honeymoon?”
“Are you forgetting I threw you into one even before we were engaged?” I scoff. “Let’s see, my conniving sister, attempted to break us up, by leading you to believe that I was Johnny’s mother and had been lying to you about it.”
“Hmm, that’s true. And when you confronted her, she collapsed and had to be rushed to the hospital.” Frank puts his hand over mine. “Okay, I guess we have already covered a lot of ground where family drama is concerned.” He chuckles, but a shadow crosses his face.
“What else are you worried about?” I ask. Frank puts his hand back on the wheel. “Whatever it is, you can tell me,” I say, returning my head to his shoulder.
“It’s about Annie and Pete,” Frank says, drumming his fingers.
Annie was Frank’s high school sweetheart and his first wife. They had hardly been married a year when Frank left to fight in the Great War. Frank told me the details of his divorce the first weekend after we met. In August 1918, an enemy artillery shell left Frank unconscious with a serious head wound. The military mistakenly reported him as killed in action. His family thought he was dead. They held a memorial service for him and everything. A month later, a letter arrived for Annie. A letter from Frank who was awake and recovering in a French hospital. As Frank tells the story, once the letter arrived, his mother got on the phone to Washington and didn’t hang up until she confirmed he was alive. In her grief, Annie had turned to Pete, Frank’s brother, for comfort.
Frank clears his throat. “So, you remember how when I came home, it turned out Annie and Pete had fallen in love, and she was pregnant? That’s why I granted the divorce.”
“Of course, I remember sweetheart,” I say, thinking of the long scar Frank carries across the top of his forehead. Not all the scars of war are as visible.
“What I didn’t tell you,” he pauses, “is that after they married and moved away to Cincinnati,” he takes a deep breath, “Annie lost the baby. She miscarried.”
“Oh.” I’m not sure what else to say. As a friend, I might stay silent and wait for him to speak next. But as a wife, should I engage more? Help him work things out?
Dear Lord, help me learn how to be a good and loving partner to my husband, Frank. Help me learn how to help him continue to heal. Amen.
A little voice in my head tells me a partner should dig deeper. Seek to understand.
“How did you feel when you found out she’d lost the baby?” I ask.
“I felt sorry for them and sorry for myself. I knew how much Annie wanted to be a mother. Of course, I always thought she’d have a baby with me, not my brother.” He moans and laughs at the same time.
“Did it make you second guess the divorce?”
“At first maybe, but no. No. They were in love. I’m not sure Annie and I could have put things back together. Getting divorced was the right thing to do, but her miscarriage made it less of a clean break for me. If they’d ridden off into the sunset with a bouncing baby by their side, it might have been easier to accept letting her go. I think the futility of the whole situation is the reason I gave up on love. I focused on my work and my studies. Convinced myself I wasn’t the marrying kind.”
“I guess we both convinced ourselves we weren’t the marrying kind.”
“And look at us now.” He turns his head to me for a second and smiles before returning his eyes to the highway.
“Did Annie and Pete ever have children?”
“She lost several babies before they had their daughter, Grace,” he says. "Grace is probably, oh, nineteen by now." He’s silent for a moment. His eyes narrow and then he shakes his head.
“There’s something else on your mind. What is it?”
“How can you know me so well in such a short time?” Frank runs his hand through his wavy hair. His fingers linger over his scar for a moment before he re-grips the wheel. “Okay, I’m worried that seeing Pete and Annie may make me sad. I was sad for a long time after my marriage fell apart and as much as I want to reconnect, I don’t want to be sad this weekend. I want to be happy—with you.”
“Well, I signed on for the complete package earlier today—sickness and health, richer or poorer, happy or sad. We’re in this together, Mr. Davis.” I stretch up to kiss him on the cheek before settling my head back in its now familiar spot on his shoulder. “Tell me more about the hotel.”
“Why are you so interested in the hotel?” he asks.
“Well, I’ve only ever stayed in one hotel. When I moved to Bartlesville. Before I met Mrs. Henderson.”
“Yup.” I do some quick math in my head. “I’ve slept in five beds my entire life.”
“Five beds, huh?”
“Can you count them for me?”
“My bed above the Pack and Run where I grew up. My bed in the boarding house in Claremore where I lived with my brother Eddie. The one at Aunt Maude’s in Wichita. The one in my room at the Hotel Maire in Bartlesville, and then the one in my room at Henderson House. That’s five.”
“I’m not sure I could count all the places I’ve laid my weary head, especially during the war. Heck, I slept in at least five different motels on my drive from San Francisco to Bartlesville last May.”
“You love to travel, don’t you?”
“I do. Meeting new people and seeing different cities is fascinating to me. I can’t wait for us to do more exploring together.” He puts one hand back on my leg, a little higher this time and a jolt of electricity runs up my thigh. “I was thinking, after today, I will have driven Route 66 from Santa Monica to Joplin. All that’s left is Joplin to Chicago. Would you want to drive to Chicago with me, Mrs. Davis?”
“Chicago? Oh, my goodness, I’d love to.”
“Of course, with the way the war in Europe is going, this may be our last road trip for a while,” Frank says.
“What makes you say that?” I scooch even closer to him, inhaling the waning scent of his aftershave. Somehow it feels wrong to be so content when the rest of the world is at war, but I can’t help it.
“When war comes so will rationing. Rationing rubber will be the first order of business.” He takes another deep breath. “Bessie, there’s something I need to tell you.”
“Mmm, hmm,” I say, almost drifting off to sleep again at the gentle sound of his voice. We forgot to ask the professor to make coffee at the reception. He’s gotten quite good at making coffee in Mrs. Henderson’s stovetop percolator. With cutting the cake, tossing the bouquet, and Louie upstaging everyone my stealing it for Mrs. H, well, coffee was the last thing on my mind. Maybe I can get a cup at the hotel before we head up to our room.
“Bessie,” Frank says, his voice taking on a more business-like tone, “you know I came to Bartlesville to work on an aviation fuel project at Phillips, and now, well, they want to move me to another project.”
“Another project?” I say, lifting my head out of my almost sleep.
“Boots Adams wants me to manage a chemical research team on synthetic polymers. He offered me the position earlier this week and today at the wedding reception, I accepted.”
I was surprised to see Boots Adams and his wife, Blanche, sitting on Frank’s side of the aisle at our wedding. I knew Frank had invited them, but I never imagined the head of Phillips Petroleum would attend my wedding. Of course, I never imagined I’d get married at all.
“What makes synthetic polymers more important than aviation fuel?” I ask, adding synthetic polymers to my ever-expanding vocabulary list of engineering terms. I don’t want to be one of those wives who can’t discuss her husband’s work.
“Well, there’s a way to use petroleum to make synthetic rubber. Now that we’re cut off from the Southeast Asian supply of natural rubber, developing alternative forms is critical. Every vehicle in our military needs tires.”
“Tires. I suppose those are important. And Boots Adams asked you himself? Well, congratulations, darling. It must be a promotion of sorts.”
“I suppose it is.” He takes one hand off the wheel and puts his arm around me. “But don’t worry, we’ll get through this war and there will be plenty more road trips for us. I told you once before, you’ve still got some adventures ahead of you Bessie Blackwell.” He kisses the top of my head.
“That’s Bessie Blackwell Davis, thank you,” I tease and Frank laughs his wonderful, melodic laugh as the city skyline rises into view.
“Welcome to the Connor, Mr. and Mrs. Davis,” the hotel clerk greets us with a warm smile under his bushy mustache. The size and elegance of the lobby is overwhelming. I’ve never seen so much marble in my life. “I have you down as staying with us for four evenings, departing on Monday, July sixth,” he says, consulting his ledger. “Is that correct?”
“Yes, sir,” Frank replies.
“Excellent. Let me ring for a bellman to help with your luggage.”
“We’ve had a long drive,” Frank says. “Could you have our luggage delivered to the room so my wife and I can grab something to eat?”
“Of course. At this time of day, I recommend the Kit Kat Coffee Shop. It’s just across the lobby, there,” he points.
“Oh, the Kit Kat sounds perfect,” I say.
Frank and I walk arm and arm across the lobby. At five o’clock on a Thursday, the Kit Kat is practically deserted. Two young women sit at a small table sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes.
“The place is yers,” the waitress greets us in a thick Irish accent. “Take any table er booth ye like.”
“Let’s take a booth in the window so we can do some people-watching,” I say.
The waitress hands us two oversized menus. “Canna get ye some coffee?”
“Yes, please,” Frank and I say at the same time, and then we laugh. The waitress smiles and heads behind the counter for the coffeepot. She’s a buxom, red-headed woman a few years younger than I am, maybe late thirties.
“We forgot to ask the Professor to make coffee at the reception,” Frank says.
“I know. I was thinking the same thing earlier when I kept falling asleep on your shoulder in the car.”
“Are you tired, sweetheart?” he asks.
“Not anymore. The hotel is invigorating. It’s lovely, Frank. Even more beautiful than your descriptions. I can’t wait to get to our room.” As soon as the words leave my mouth, I’m embarrassed. I look down at the table between us. “I mean, I’m excited to see how our room is furnished,” I sputter. “Florence made me promise to take detailed notes about the curtain fabric and bedspreads. You know how she is.”
Franks reaches across the table and takes both of my hands. My heart pounds in my chest.
“Are you nervous, darling?” he asks. I raise my eyes to meet his.
“I’m not sure, but, yes, I suppose I am. A little. Nervous.”
Who am I kidding? Now that we’re in the hotel, I can hardly take a deep breath without thinking about going upstairs with Frank, as his wife.
“Ah, it does me ‘art good to see an old married couple like yerselves still so much in love,” the waitress croons as she fills our coffee cups.
“Thank you, Katie,” Frank says, noticing her name tag.
“Canna get ye something to eat?”
“I’d like a BLT,” I say.
“And I’ll have a club sandwich,” Frank replies.
“Save room for a wee bit o’ dessert,” Katie instructs. “Chef makes all our cakes and pies in-house. Best in town.” She leaves to place our order.
Franks squeezes my hands and I giggle.
“Old married couple like us,” I say.
“Still so much in love.” Frank grins at me. Those little wrinkles around his eyes melt my heart.
“I’ve changed my mind,” I say.
“I don’t care how the room is furnished. I can’t wait to be alone with you.”
“Katie,” Frank calls. “Could you pack those sandwiches to go, please?”