Martha’s boss, Walter, caught her eye as she pulled her pay envelope from her box. “Let’s talk,” he said. He turned and stepped into his office.
Martha didn’t want to miss her bus. When that happened, her whole schedule got thrown off. Ordinarily, getting called into a meeting at day’s end on a Friday would be cause for anxiety. Those meetings were always bad news.
Being one of the newspaper’s best ad sales people, Martha wasn’t worried. They needed her.
Walter indicated the chair when she entered. There goes the bus, thought Martha. He actually wants to talk. She sat, trying to not look impatient.
Walter stood, looking out the window. Martha waited expectantly.
“How long have you been with us, Martha?”
“I started with you in 1933, so, three years? Give or take.” The Depression had limped and groaned for four years and counting.
“You’ve done well, considering the business climate we’re in. You’re a top producer.”
“Thank you, sir. I do my best.”
“How are things at home?”
Martha chose her words carefully. Why didn’t he get to the point? “As well as you could expect. I’m the sole breadwinner, you know.”
“Is your eldest boy working?”
“Fred is on his own. He helps as he can.”
“I see. And your son Carl wants to be a writer? Or a big league pitcher?”
“He has big dreams.”
“And they’re all still in school?”
“The three of them, yes. Betty, my youngest, is ten.”
“I remember her. In a few years, ‘hello Hollywood!’”
“She’s a good girl.”
Walter turned and leaned on his desk. He looked straight at Martha and sighed.
“You know how things are, Martha. I cannot tell you how sorry I am about this.”
“What do you mean?”
“We have to let you go. There are men who need the work. They need to feed their families.”
“But I need to feed my family.”
“I’m very sorry. It isn’t my decision.”
Martha was stunned. How could this be? He said himself, she’s a top producer.
Walter cleared his throat and stood straight. “Take the weekend. Rest. I’m sure you’ll find something.”
Walter turned to the window again. Martha left in silence.
The bus ran late. Fresh snow blew through the headlights from rush hour traffic. Detroit winters are cold. But even on the bus, Martha couldn’t get warm. What would she do? This had been the perfect job. And now? She couldn’t think straight. What would she tell the kids? She needed a plan. Again.
Martha told herself to remember to cancel the dentist appointments for Betty and Roman.
A prayer always calmed her. She repeated it.
Carl, Roman and Betty had eaten when Martha got home. Betty knew the routine and had whipped up some buttered noodles for the boys. They listened to a comedy show on the radio.
Martha hung up her winter coat. She thanked Betty for her help. “Listen to your show. I’ll clean up.”
“Aren’t you going out? It’s Friday.”
“I don’t know dear,” said Martha. “This day about did me in.”
“Oh, nothing that won’t work out. Just work.”
“You should go to your club. Your friends will cheer you up.”
“I don’t know. Maybe... I’ll be fine.”
Martha looked at Carl. “Are you going out?”
“Of course. It’s Friday night. The Thin Man.”
“It’s freezing out.”
Exhausted, Martha stared at her noodles and the dishes in the sink and wanted only to sit. She wasn’t hungry. Not for noodles. Maybe she would go to the club.
Martha sang. For many, her songs at the club were a highlight. It wasn’t opera. Her voice and easy delivery brought warmth to a cold world.
Her friends said she should make records. That seemed so out of reach now. Four kids ago, she might have had a chance. She didn’t regret the kids. If only she had met a different kind of man.
Martha put the dishes to soak and the phone rang. Her eldest son, Ferdinand called every day.
“How are you, Ma?”
“Tired. But good. How’s your father?”
“He’s out. I think he’s planning a trip back home.”
“Really? Is there work in Warsaw? If you can’t make it in Detroit…”
“He never fit in, Ma. You know that.”
“I thought he was at Ford.”
“’Til last week…”
“Oh well. What can you do?” Fred didn’t answer. “How are you?”
“I’m good. How’s work?”
“Slow everywhere, after Christmas.”
“We’ll get by.”
“You going to the club?”
“Maybe I’ll see you there.”
“Then I’ll go.”
“See you then. Bye Ma. Love ya.”
“Love you too, Ferdie.”
She hung up the phone. Carl put on his coat. Martha straightened his collar and arranged his scarf. She looked at him. Tears welled up and she looked away.
“What’s wrong, Mom?”
“You go. Be with your friends. I’ll be alright.”
“I got laid off.”
Carl didn’t miss a beat.
“I’ll get a job.”
“You can’t. You have school.”
“There’s always work. I’ll work nights. I’ve been thinking about it anyway.”
“I’ll find something. I always land on my feet. You know.”
Carl embraced his mother. “I’ve got to go. Don’t worry.” Carl smiled and gave Martha a thumbs up as he closed the door.
“How can I help, Mom?”
Martha turned to see Roman and Betty looking at her. No secrets with four children.
“Oh, kids.” She moved to embrace them. “It’ll work out. Let’s keep it between us, okay?”
Betty said, “I’ll help out, here.”
“You always do, Cherub.”
“I can sell papers. Jerzy, at the news stand, said so.”
“It’s too cold now, Romie, with your leg. Maybe in the spring.” Roman suffered a mild case of polio a few years ago. But there was still scarring.
“I’m used to it, Mom. I’m fine.”
Martha tousled his hair. “Like Rasputin, you can’t keep a good man down.”
Roman laughed at her old saying. They hugged their mother.
“Thanks, kids. I guess I’ll go to the club after all.” Big band music drew their attention. “Your show is starting.”
They ran to the radio and Roman adjusted the tuning as the theme song rose to crescendo.
The wind had died. Riding the bus again, Martha looked at the false dawn, lights from the busy General Motors factory.
Oscar, the piano player, grinned when he saw Martha arrive. They went way back and he loved accompanying her singing. Her voice fit like a favorite shoe.
Someone helped her doff her coat. A smattering of applause greeted her approach to the piano. Martha greeted old friends with a wave or a hug.
It was a card club, where most played Pinochle and caught up with friends. No booze, due to Prohibition. No one minded.
Martha stepped up to the microphone and someone called out. She laughed with the others at the familiar feeling. How could she not be here, at home?
Oscar smiled, “I thought you weren’t coming.”
“But I’m here now. Got to make an entrance, eh?”
“Whatcha got for me?”
“Let’s start with ‘Blue Skies’. But play it slow and bluesy. Don’t jazz it up. Ride the melancholy.”
Oscar cocked his head. “You okay?”
“I will be.”
Everyone quieted as the piano set the mood. Martha waited for her moment and gently sang her song.
“Blue skies smiling at me.
Nothing but blue skies do I see.
Blue birds singing a song.
Nothing but blue skies from now on.
Never saw the sun shining so bright.
Never saw things going so right.
Noticing the days hurrying by.
When you're in love, my how they fly.
Blue days, all of them gone.
Nothing but blue skies from now on…”
Martha sang how she felt, simply and from the heart. When she finished, the final chord had almost died before anyone clapped.
It felt good. She sang a few other favorites, played Pinochle and laughed with her friends for a while. Martha left early.
The snow crunched in the cold. She could see her breath linger. The bus didn’t make her wait.
Already home, Carl waited up for Martha. The others were asleep. He came to her as she hung her coat.
“Ma, I talked to a friend. He thinks he can get me on, part time, nights.”
Martha smiled at her young son, already a head taller than her. “I don’t know, Carl. Let’s see what happens this week. We’ll keep that in our back pocket.”
They smiled and she kissed him goodnight.
Monday morning, Martha got up early, as usual. She got everyone off to school and dressed for work.
Everyone in the advertising department looked up as Martha entered. She found Walter giving a tour to a man, her presumed replacement. She never saw Walter so flustered.
“Let’s talk when you finish your tour.” Walter nodded.
In a few minutes, he approached and opened his office door for Martha.
She didn’t sit.
“What a surprise, Martha. Was I not clear?”
“You were clear. I’m giving you an opportunity.”
“Keep your new man. Pay him what you want. But let me stay on. I’ll work on straight commission. You know how good I am.”
“Five percent flat. And I’ll do better than anyone.”
Walter smiled at Martha. They shook hands.
Martha did great.