Before he was arrested, tried and convicted of breaking-and-entering and stealing Mrs. June Atkinson’s lovely pearl pendant, and before he had begun to serve his eighteen-year term in the State Penitentiary at Walla Walla, Walt Klug had spoken before no less than a half dozen Seattle civic groups about how he had chanced upon Mrs. Atkinson in a large supermarket one day, how he had followed her home in his vintage Packard, and how he had then later that month burglarized her fine stone house on a moonless night and proudly sped off with the gem in his pocket. He normally went on to then tell his audience about how, the following day, he began a drive that would take him halfway across the country to Bowman, North Dakota, so he could bury his spoil at a location near his birthplace and then make the long drive back to the high-rise he called home, where he bedded down in rainy Seattle.
It was during his second year at Walla Walla that Walt Klug met and fell in love with Blues Stanton. Stanton had recently arrived to begin serving a twelve-year sentence for assaulting and nearly beating to death a security guard outside the stables at Emerald Downs. Stanton’s only defense at trial had been to render the impassioned statement that “a string of twenty-two straight losing races had made me mad as shit, and as I left the track that evening, I just wanted to pulverize the first living thing that got in my way as I struggled to remember just where I’d parked my Buick.”
Klug and Stanton liked one another from the very outset. Stanton was especially drawn to Klug, however, because unbeknownst to Klug, Stanton had actually been present during a monthly meeting of the Rainier Rotarians nearly two years earlier, when Walt Klug had spoken about his adventures stealing and burying the pearl. Klug, for his part, was especially enamored of Blues Stanton; Stanton’s bullet-bald head was such an appealing contrast to Klug’s own wiry locks. Klug reveled in the stolen and carefully-out-of-sight moments when he could smooth and press his bare hands all over Blues’ shiny pate at the same time Stanton was snagging his hands through Klug’s unruly, silver hair. This fledgling, affectionate relationship intensified and endured for well over two years, until one day, out in the prison yard, Walt Klug confided to his lover not precisely where he had buried the pearl in North Dakota, but rather casually revealed the fact that he had buried it uncased, un-bagged, and completely unprotected in the Dakota soil.
Blues Stanton’s temper climbed like a rocket, and he asked Klug if had ever given any thought to what happens to a bare pearl encased in dirt. “Directly exposed like that to the elements—Christ, you’ll be lucky if there’s anything left at all for us to find by the time we get back to dig it up,” he furiously exclaimed.
But Walt Klug merely smiled and reached out to place some “calm-down, calm-down” pats on Blues Stanton’s lustrous skull. In a soft, melodious voice, he confided to Stanton that he wasn’t at all worried about the pearl’s condition, and that in fact, he had never been worried, because during that long and focused drive to Bowman in his good green Packard, he’d had the chance countless times to pinch and roll the pendant about in his fingers, to play with it and hold it up in front of his eyes and admire its wonderful contours. And really, he said, he had started to grow a little tired of it well before he got to Bowman, and the burial itself, while still necessary, had actually become something of a perfunctory gesture. But as he now looked in warm contentment and sympathy at his fuming lover and pretended to brush back imaginary strands of hair across Blues’ brow, Walt Klug murmured softly, “Maybe what I liked most about the pearl is what it taught me, sweetheart, as I twirled it around and around in my fingers, and just how important it is for me to stay in touch with things that have a curving and un-edged shape. Why, I know I’m probably going overboard here, but I tell you, such objects are like the earth surrounded by heaven. My pearl and your head: oh, promise me, Blues, you’ll value them both for what they mean to each of us.”
I was thankful Andrew appeared to have set aside his arrogance and was actually squatting down to talk to my daycare kids at their own level, but I had no idea he was teaching them how to pout and strut. That wasn’t obvious for at least an hour, until I looked over and watched him instruct Maurice, Chang, Lily, and Percival on how to cross and hold their extended little arms on their chest (thereby making an “X”), while standing stolidly with their legs a bit apart and their head somewhat raised and staring off unblinkingly into the distance, before they then all began to pace up and down the playground in tight unison, brooking no interruption or distraction that might challenge their scowling countenance. It was quite a display of surprising discipline (though admittedly on the sober and sour side), and strictly to myself, I labeled them “The Mussolini Quartet.” You can best believe I was really grateful to the powers-that-be when a tropical disturbance I was vaguely aware of and knew had started several days previously down there near Martinique (and had kept determinedly chugging its way north), now began to toss rain and lightning all over my nursery’s immediate and surrounding environs, and it forced every last one of us inside for at least the remainder of the day.
Gusts of an off-and-on wind ruffled her hair as the governor's wife stood straight on the platform, listening to the band perform, and flexing her hands at the ready to grab the bottle of champagne she was about to be given. She'd use both her hands around its neck to sort of swing the magnum like a softball bat to christen this Liberty ship and send it down the skids into the bay. The moment came upon her fairly fast, and she swung the bottle hard, but nothing happened other than the jolting noise of something solid striking against the dark gray metal hull. The assembled officials sweetly and hurriedly had her try again, and then again and again---six times in all, in fact---but no glass broke, no bubbly ran, and needless to say, no new freighter from Connecticut joined the Allied war effort that fine fall day.
Two days later, the governor's wife was again given the honor, and this time her bosom-shaking swing easily broke the dark green bottle against the Liberty ship, and the bubbly seemed to go everywhere, but the boat did not move in the slightest, it never slid even a millimeter down the runway. A hush over the entire crowd lasted a good five seconds before the message slowly spread that the christening would now have to occur on Friday (i.e., tomorrow).
The governor's wife grew quietly determined to in no way be the reason for any additional delay in the ship's launch. To keep up her strength, she had the household staff boil plenty of spinach with her family’s dinner that night. She even had some leftover spinach fixed with her breakfast the following morning, but the result on the third day was a repeat of Day One: Six hefty swings, six loud hits, but no broken bottle and no launch.
That night the shipyard committee and several state politicians conferred, and after securing the governor's agreement, a spokesman notified the governor's wife that, sure, we all have our strengths and weaknesses, that there is nothing in the world wrong with that, and that was in fact the way God made every one of us, and not everyone, of course, was intended to christen a Liberty ship. They had decided, the spokesman said, to have a senator's daughter now do the honors, but they had also decided that the next Liberty ship built in Connecticut would be named after the governor's wife.
The truth be told, the governor's wife had no problem at all with this arrangement, for she had grown bone-tired of the whole sorry ceremony, but, to keep up both political and patriotic appearances, she asked only that she be allowed to at least attend the proceedings, an invitation to which was immediately extended and accepted.
So this time it was the senior senator's young daughter who stood near other folks at the edge of the planking and who held tightly a bottle of something that she herself wasn't legally old enough to imbibe. She held it in a chokehold, and then, upon a signal from the shipyard committee chairman, she hurled the bottle with surprising force against the ship. It easily shattered and changed into a messy, frothing liquid, and the Liberty ship clearly began its downward, backward slide into the water, but—halfway down the skids—the ship jolted to a stop, and no amount of reaching out, urging, or cajoling on the part of the assembled gathering could force the ship to complete its launch. Once again, the launching occasion for this vessel had come a cropper. Once again, there was immediate astonishment, and then a strange publicity coalesced out of the shared thoughts or actions of many, many people, from the adolescent band members directly at the scene, to, later on, nationwide viewers of movie-house newsreels, to, finally, a charming, breathy, and girlish account rendered by Tokyo Rose to American sailors and soldiers. However, none of this deterred the shipyard committee from trying yet again to get the Liberty ship christened by the senator's daughter and sent forth to help win the war.
But the fifth attempt to christen the ship was certainly the briefest, as the steadfastly enthusiastic senator's daughter attentively stood tall and was all-smiles during the National Anthem on a lovely November day, ready and determined to do what she still unmistakably believed was her sacred duty. However, she no sooner was handed the bottle of champagne than she witnessed the large end of the bottle suddenly and without reason fall off, as if it were a top to a jar that hadn’t been screwed on tight enough. The empty magnum itself (or what was left of it) then fell to the planks of the platform and rolled into the bay, thereby completing another embarrassing postponement.
As it turned out, the sixth attempt to make this Liberty ship a part of the Allies' mighty armada for victory was the final try. Everyone involved agreed that a christening by both the governor's wife and the senator's daughter was the necessary prescription now for a successful, error-free launch, and thus both ladies stood on the platform, side by side, as the band once more struck the colors. They each grasped the bottle of champagne that now hung suspended and upright on a tall table between them. But no sooner had they each touched the bottle than the entire platform and scaffolding shook violently and collapsed. Many people were roughed up, and in what some folks thought was one of the highest and deepest tragedies of the war, both the governor's wife and the senator's daughter were among a half dozen people killed on the spot.
Needless to say, there was a tremendous volume of continuing interest, discussion, and grief over the six deaths and the six failed attempts to launch the same ship, and there were numerous proposals of various ways to somehow honor the governor's deceased wife and the senator's dead daughter, though in a gesture toward Allied soldiers, airmen, and sailors in every theater of the war, both the governor and the senator firmly, finally, and convincingly nixed every one of these special overtures.
William C. Blome lives wedged between Baltimore and Washington, DC, and he once swiped a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University while no one was looking. His work has appeared in PRISM International, Fiction Southeast, Poetry London, and Salted Feathers.