We gathered on the back porch for an early lunch. Elizabeth, with help from her mother, managed to salvage most of the contents of our picnic basket, except the bread, which was a soggy mess.
“It’s a good thing it’s washing day,” Rose said, shaking her head as she carried our filthy things down to the basement scullery, where the washing machine was.
I found a clean blanket, and spread it out on the thick grass in the back yard. With the windows open, we could hear the radio playing in the back parlor.
We were just laying out the food when George strolled across the lawn toward us, ducking under the line of his mother’s washing with a pie balanced carefully in one hand.
“Well, it looks like a party!” He said, depositing his own offering onto the picnic. “My mother sent this over. She wouldn’t listen when I said we had plenty of food.”
“It smells delicious!” Elizabeth said, leaning forward to inhale the apple and cinnamon scented steam still rising from the crust.
No trace of the storm remained. July sun shone down on us, bright and hot. With the music playing in the background, it should have been the perfect summer day. But instead of laughing, our thoughts turned instead to our terrifying experience at the barn.
“You don’t think they could have followed us, do you? Do you think they’ll find us?” Elizabeth asked, worrying a thumbnail.
“Ishkabible. There’s no way they could have followed us. They were on foot, remember?” George took her hand and gave it a comforting squeeze.
“But what if they recognize your car? The bullet holes are going to be hard to miss.”
“Stop worrying. I’ll have them fixed up in no time. Did I tell you, I’m taking a class? I’m going to learn to weld. It’ll be fine.”
Despite his brave words, I could tell George was worried too, but unwilling to show it for Elizabeth’s sake.
Rose came out with a basket of laundry, adding a row of shirts to those already flapping on the line and cutting our conversation short.
“Well, don’t let me interrupt you bright young things,” she said, glancing over her shoulder at us.
I tried to come up with a new subject–safer for discussion around worried adults–but the song changed and George got a mischievous look on his face. “They’re playing our song,” he whispered to Elizabeth. Before she could object, he grabbed her hand, hauling her to her feet, then spun her around and started doing a quickstep to “Liza Jane.”
I laughed, applauding his skill as Elizabeth blushed and tried to keep up. She added her own flourish as he spun her around and swept her into a low dip.
“What do you two think you’re doing?” Rose demanded, scowling at them. “Mister George, the neighbors!” She looked at the surrounding houses, as though our neighbors might be watching with telescopes.
“It’s all in good fun, Rose,” I said, trying to calm her, but she’d already abandoned the laundry. The basket flipped onto its side in her haste to pull Elizabeth away.
“Mama, he didn’t mean nothin’ by it,” her daughter pleaded. “It’s just fun.”
George waltzed up to Rose, gently taking her hands and taking her for a whirl like he had Elizabeth. “We were just dancing.”
Rose pulled her hands away, taking several steps back. “And what will the neighbors say if they see both of you together? What would Mr. Blake say?” she lowered her voice to a whisper, still glancing at the houses around us. She gathered Elizabeth to her side. “Go inside. Start collecting the sheets.”
Elizabeth slunk off, sparing one last look over her shoulder for George and I before disappearing through the back door.
Rose smoothed out her apron, schooling her face into a mask of calm. “I’m sorry for my outburst, Miss Dru, Mister George. But you don’t understand how dangerous a thing like that can be. They’re burnin’ crosses in Dayton, and there’s talk in town. I just want me and my girl to do our work and live our lives, and not draw attention from no one.”
I knew the kind of talk she meant. Columbus was not a diverse city; we had a very small immigrant population, mostly Italians, and some Germans further south. Even our negro population was relatively small. Maybe because despite our Northern sensibilities, Columbus remained unwelcoming to outsiders.
I remembered when I was young, just before Rose and Elizabeth moved in with us. I was maybe six or seven, and couldn’t understand why people sometimes shouted mean things at my parents when we went out. Once, Daddy came home from work at the hospital, dejected and filthy. I listened from the staircase as he told Mother about the group of men and women who threw eggs and flour at him as he was leaving the hospital, shouting “Dirty kraut, go home!” Neither I nor my parents had ever seen Germany, and my grandfather barely remembered it himself. But just the name “Faust” was enough to fuel the anti-German sentiment of the war. On the south side of the city, where a large German-speaking population resided, streets were renamed to hide their Germanic origins. German books and newspapers were burned. Even now, German Village, where most of the immigrants lived in the south of the city, suffered. The anti-immigrant sentiment growing throughout the country was felt keenly in that neighborhood, and now that the breweries were closed due to prohibition, many people were out of work and suffering from hard times. We didn’t speak of it, but I knew Daddy thought of it often.
Sobered, I put a hand on Rose’s arm. “I’m sorry Rose. We didn’t mean to cause trouble. But I don’t think anyone around here would mind. Our neighbors all know you’re like family to us.”
“And that’s part of the problem, isn’t it?” She smoothed her perfectly straight apron again. “Excuse me, miss. I need to get back to work.”
George and I watched her go back to the laundry basket, stiffly pinning towels to the line. Our festive mood spoiled, he helped me pack up our dishes and carry them back to the house.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, for the competition,” I said, seeing him out the front door. Elizabeth was nowhere in sight.
“Yeah. Tomorrow. I’ll pick you up at two.” He nodded without really looking at me. I watched him trot across the lawn to his house, wishing there was more I could do for him and Elizabeth.
“Is he gone?” she asked, creeping down the stairs. Her eyes were red-rimmed, and she held an overflowing armload of bedding.
“Yes. He’ll be back tomorrow to pick me up for the dance contest.”
Sniffling, Elizabeth ducked her head. “I wish I could go. I wish I could dance with him. Really dance with him, in public and everything. But we can’t even dance in our own backyard.”
I found her hand in the folds of cotton and gave it a squeeze. “Here, let me help you with that.”
Together, we took the laundry down to the basement. I was just setting down my share of the load when the sound of the front door and footsteps overhead alerted me that Daddy was home. Remembering I was to help him with his tests, I gave Elizabeth a small smile. “Are you copacetic?”
She nodded, sniffling a little as she put the first pieces in to soak. “I’ll be fine.”
I gave her quick hug, then ran up the stairs to meet Daddy.