Boise, Idaho - March 1958
Three decades earlier, on December 20, 1930, the Hotel Boise had opened to tremendous fanfare. The white, art deco “skyscraper” was ten stories high, the upper floors set back in wedding cake style. Its luxury, the Idaho Statesman declared, was equal to that found in any great metropolitan hotel. All that day, thousands of Idahoans toured through, gaping at the Egyptian-type curlicues that topped the pillars and doorways, and at the elegant lobby which, according to Hotel News, resembled nothing so much as the lounge of a French luxury liner. That evening, five hundred leading citizens in evening attire—the ladies sparkling with jewels-- attended a dinner-dance in the Crystal Ballroom. Don Keith’s Spanish Ballroom Orchestra had been brought up from Salt Lake City, and the event was broadcast on a San Francisco radio station.[i]
Now, on a March evening in 1958, the Hotel Boise is no longer in the headlines, though it’s still the swank place in town. The Crystal Ballroom is still the largest in the city and the hotel bar is the unofficial meeting place for the city’s elite. During the legislative session, many of the lawmakers live in the hotel, walking back and forth to the Capitol a few blocks away.
Boise goes to bed early, though, and by ten p.m. activity in the hotel is winding down. At the cigar stand just inside the grand entrance, a woman whose golden-red hair is done up in a sleek roll closes out her cash register. It’s Eva; she’s thirty-five, attractive and slim, several inches taller than average. Her Tareyton Long is balanced on a silver ashtray as she re-stocks the gum and packs of cigarettes that have been sold since she came on shift at three. Though she's working, she’s attired as though for an elegant evening out, wearing one of the cinch-waist dresses in deep forest green that set of both her slim figure and her red-head’s complexion. Her feet are long and thin and she always wears open-toe, open-back high heels.
Besides being a classy looker, she’s nice to everyone, merry and fun; she has a way of looking into your eyes as if the two of you are about to burst with some hilarious secret. As a result, she’s popular around the hotel. The waitresses are always stopping by to yak and the bell boys like to hang around the cigar stand, kidding about this and that. Their kidding though is just in fun and to pass the time between calls. Everyone knows she’s married to Vick, the hotel’s handsome new chef. The guests, of course, don’t know about Vick, but Eva is wearing a diamond-studded wedding ring on her long slender finger, and if anybody starts to get cute, she makes sure not only that they see the ring but that they realize they’ve been shown it.
She’s been married a year, almost exactly, and she is deeply, deeply in love. She’s so in love that she’s downright corny and at every holiday, she gives Vick the gushiest greeting card she can find.
Eva is lucky to have landed tall, good-looking Vick, the waitresses think. But she’s a sweetheart and she deserves it. Besides—she’s had a tough time. Before Vick showed up, it was clear to the practiced female eye that under the merry exterior she was lonely, even a little frightened.
And no wonder. As anyone who goes to the movies is constantly reminded, being single in the 50s is a terrifying experience. Today's motion pictures are full of pathetic, often desperate single women. By now the jaunty career gals of an earlier time are pretty much gone. In 1940 Rosalind Russell was a fast-talking reporter who just couldn't trade the newspaper game for a husband and a bunch of kids;[ii] but by 1955 Russell is playing a woman so terrified of becoming a spinster school teacher that, swallowing tears and pride, she goes down on her knees, begging her reluctant gentleman friend to marry her.[iii]
There’s good reason for this desperation, as the movies also show: single women can be terrifyingly vulnerable, subject both to remarkable brutality and assumptions of criminality. Susan Hayward, for example, plays a young woman who likes to kick off her shoes and dance with sailors; her only real crime is that she’s too good of a pal to a couple of low life guys. She gets the electric chair all the same, and just to underline the point of what can happen to a girl, the movie shows her being strapped in for execution. The restraints force her legs apart and the newsmen jostle to get the best view. [iv] Even a demure good girl, like Anne Baxter in Blue Gardenia, loses her invisible shield of protection when her fiancé dumps her. Now she’s fair game for a heartless womanizer and when she tries to defend herself, she too ends up facing a capital charge. [v]
No, it’s terrible to be single, especially as you head onto the downhill side of your thirties.
You may feel "young and carefree," a recent magazine article warned unmarried women. But soon you'll be a "middle-aged sad sack" and it'll be too late to get "husband insurance."[vi]
So of course, everybody is glad to see Eva settled and so happy.
Since tonight is one of Vick’s nights off—they can never get exactly the same schedule though Eva has tried—she puts on her coat to walk the five blocks home. Before leaving, she visits the ladies’ room to smooth her hair, touch up her lipstick and powder; she wants to look good for her man who’ll be waiting up, reading one of his magazines. They’ll sit and smoke, have a cup of coffee. They’ll put Perry Como on the hi-fi maybe. Neither of them has to be at work until three the next afternoon.
One of the bellmen holds the door and Eva steps out onto Eighth and Bannock. It’s chilly and she walks briskly along the nearly-empty streets, up to Jefferson and then four blocks over to the little basement apartment that they rent from old Mr. and Mrs. Bailey. It was Eva’s apartment before they got married and Vick moved in. It’s small, just a bedroom, front room with three street-level windows and a nook of a kitchen. Maybe they’ll look around for a house eventually, but for now it’s clean and cozy, the perfect little love nest.
As Eva steps onto her block, she sees that the brand new ’58 Mercury she and Vick recently bought on time—dark blue over robin’s egg—isn’t in its usual place in front of the house. She tries to remember; did he say something about taking it to the garage? She walks faster, clip-clipping along the dark sidewalk and she is glad when she sees the lights shining from the apartment windows. She walks down the cement steps at the side of the house and taps on the door. She waits a minute, then, her toes too cold to wait for the big lug to unfold himself from the couch, lets herself in with her key.
It only takes a few seconds in the neat little apartment for Eva to see that though the lamps are on and everything looks perfectly normal, Vick is not there.
She stands in the living room puzzled. She knows he likes to go out. Sometime he gets antsy on his night off. But why didn’t he pick her up after work and they could have gone somewhere? There aren’t many places open this late in Boise, but there are a few.
She goes to the phone to see if Vick has left a note on the pad, or jotted something that would show what had come up, but nothing is there. She puts her hand on the phone, but that doesn’t make it ring, doesn’t put Vick on the other end explaining where he is and why. She thinks of calling the different places that might be open this late, but doesn’t want to come across the nagging wife.
Now she begins to worry that she may have already nagged a little. She’s thinking how Vick had been a bit moody in the last few days, quiet, and how she worried he was getting sick. She was afraid it was something about the lung problem he’d had for years. She’d urged him to see the doctor, but he hadn’t wanted to and hadn’t wanted to talk about it. Stop asking him if he was OK, he’d finally said. Not mad. Just telling her. And she had. But now she’s worried. Could he be peeved that she tried to get him to go to the doctor? Tried to tell him what to do? Could he have just gone out alone to teach her not to nag? But he’s never been peeved before, not even once. He’s never done anything even the slightest bit thoughtless or inconsiderate.
She goes into the bedroom again and stops still; the framed wedding pictures are gone from the dresser.
After a moment she steps to the closet and opens it to see her own collection of dark green and midnight blue dresses on the right; on the left there is an empty space where Vick’s slacks and jackets hung. Back at the dresser she opens the drawers that held his underwear and socks and the one where she put his shirts as they came packaged from the laundry. The drawers are empty.
Her heart racing, she goes back to the closet. Vick’s jackets and slacks are still not hanging on his side. All of his things are gone except for the soft green sweater she gave him for Christmas. It’s on the closet shelf, folded neatly. There too is the shoe box where he keeps his check stubs and so forth. Also in the box are the greeting cards she has given him. She knows he kept them because she once peeked to see.
Eva sits up smoking all night. There is no one she can call, no living soul she can tell. For one thing, she can’t bear for anyone to know. And anyway, she’s sure that no one--none of their friends--would take it seriously. Everyone was always teasing them for being such lovebirds.
Whadja have, a fight? The girls would say. Don’t worry, he’ll cool off. He’s out driving around. He didn’t just leave.
But they hadn’t had a fight. They’d never had a fight or even an argument. There had never been a night when they didn’t sleep in each other’s arms.
She doesn’t call her mother, Grace, who still lives on the farm in the Eastern Oregon mountain valley where Eva grew up. She can’t bear for her mother to know that something terrible has happened. Again. Eva knows she has put her mother through a lot since leaving the farm in 1943 to go to a war job. Though she and her mother are close, Eva knows she hasn’t turned out at all as her mother had hoped. She knows Grace has worried and prayed over her so many things. Now it crosses Eva’s mind that this new blow might be more than her mother can stand.
As the light breaks she sleeps for a couple of hours, slumped on the couch, hugging the green sweater in her arms. Around ten she calls the assistant manager at the hotel. She wants to ask if Vick, who is scheduled to work that night, has called in. But when the assistant manager answers, she hangs up. She waits until three when Vick would be starting his shift. Then she calls the kitchen and asks for him.
“He hasn’t come in yet, Eva,” one of the other cooks says, recognizing her voice. She hangs up and calls the assistant manager. Her mother is sick, she tells him. She and Vick have to drive over to Eastern Oregon. He’ll have to find someone to replace them both for a few days. The assistant manager doesn’t like it; it’s pretty short notice. She says she’s sorry but it can't be helped.
Eva has to do something. She makes coffee and sits down at the little kitchen table with the only thing that’s left her: Vick’s shoebox of papers and other small articles. She takes each item out and studies it, looking for something, she doesn’t know what.
The shoebox, too, has come to me in Eva’s things. And as I open it, looking for clues, I begin, as I expect Eva would have, with the orderly, rational-looking book of check stubs on a Boise bank, beginning mid-December of 1956, the month Vick arrived in town, a few weeks before he got on at the hotel and the two of them met.
Vick has a messy, scribbly handwriting and for some reason he always seems to be using a blurry pencil. But by now Eva can easily read his writing. And though she has not had occasion to look at his checkbook before, she sees now that he fills out the stubs fully, giving check number, amount, date and item, then subtracting the check amount to arrive at the new balance. In the first month he’s in town, he’s carrying a balance of about two hundred dollars, and most of his checks are for five or ten dollars, made out to a restaurant or bar, often a place called the Torch cafe. Eva knows that when he first got to Boise he lived in a furnished room over on Idaho Street, and she assumes he was eating his meals in restaurants and paying with a check. Ten dollars is a lot for one person to spend in a Boise restaurant in 1956 with a steak dinner at about three bucks and beer thirty or forty cents. But he must have written the checks for more than the bill so he could get cash back and wouldn’t have to bother standing in line at the bank.
She sees that he paid fifty-seven dollars a month rent for the furnished room where he lived when he first arrived. It seems like a lot. Eva’s rent to the Baileys is only forty a month. But then the Baileys are old, and they don’t like change. Probably they hold the rent down because they like having her, someone nice, for a tenant. Maybe too at the house where Vick stayed, the lady was doing the cleaning, washing the sheets and towels.
Going on through the stubs, Eva sees that Vick paid fifteen dollars for a pair of shoes at C.C. Anderson’s department store, and made several fifteen-dollar trips to the doctor for his lung condition. She worries again that something could have worsened with his lungs and for some incomprehensible reason he couldn’t tell her what he was planning to do about it. She feels sick to think he’s somewhere suffering and can’t let her know.
She keeps turning the little green stubs and comes to January 25, 1957. On this day he noted a ten-dollar check for “jewelry down payment.” A week later there’s another “jewelry” entry of $125. Eva knows this is her diamond wedding ring, and she puts down her head and sobs.
But soon there is nothing to do but light another cigarette and turn back to the check stubs and the scrawly handwriting that has become so dear. In March, after their marriage, there are no more checks to the Torch Cafe. Instead the checks are for the normal things a couple spends money on: $6.33 to the telephone company, $6.80 to Idaho power, $11.05 for groceries at Albertsons. The everyday expenses hearten her a little. It’s so clear that they were a happy married couple and that this is all some terrible misunderstanding.
She stops to rack her brains: is it possible he told her about something he had to go do and she simply forgot?
But she can’t think of anything and of course the hotel hadn’t been notified that he wouldn’t be at work. She turns back to the stubs. Getting to July, she sees an entry in her own neat hand. Apparently she had grabbed his checkbook to pay $15 owed to Stewart Photography. Yes: the wedding pictures.
At the bottom of the box, she finds Vick’s green-on-olive master sergeant stripes. He’d shown Eva these with pride. Surely he would not willingly have left his stripes behind.
Though she has seen the stripes before, Eva has not seen a postcard from the Veteran’s Administration, sent to Vick at an address in Washington D.C. The postcard dated March 1953 notifies Vick that his VA records have been forwarded from the San Francisco office to the Washington D.C. office.
Though Eva had known Vick was from California, near San Francisco, she thinks, she had not known he had ever lived in Washington D.C. He’s eight years older than she; at forty-three, a man like him has been around, of course. Still, she’s surprised he wouldn’t have mentioned living back East.
The military card gives Eva another idea, one that is frightening and at the same time a bit desperately hopeful. Could his moodiness and his disappearance have something to do with his experiences in the war? Eva doesn’t know many details of his service, only that he’d been in a tank unit in Italy and he’d seen a lot of things. He’d hinted that he’d had to do things that he found distasteful but that he didn’t want to talk about. It was all ancient history, he’d said.
Eva, as it happens, has had her own searing experience with what combat can do to a man. And now she is remembering a recent movie where a married man who loves his wife is haunted by flashbacks to wartime experiences that he cannot share with his wife. She remembers too a movie from a few years back where a shell shocked vet believes he killed his wife and flees, even though he has no memory of the act and really did not commit the murder. [vii]
Could it be something like that? Could Vick be wandering around, lost and confused? Could he have forgotten his name and where he lived? But if he has the car, doesn’t he have the registration with his name and address? If he has the wedding photographs, wouldn’t he see the name of Stewart Photography in Boise stamped on the back? Couldn’t he call up Stewarts, describe the photographs and ask who had ordered them?
Knowing him, maybe he just being too stubborn to follow these clues. Maybe he is too stubborn to go to the police or a hospital to ask for help. She could imagine that maybe.
What she can’t imagine is that he would knowingly frighten her so. He is so good and kind, so gentle and understanding. So very, very loving.
But if he can’t remember, then he doesn’t know what she is going through. There is a little comfort in the idea.
Putting the things back in the box, Eva notices two small scraps of paper that seem to have been torn from magazines. She sees now that they are both the same advertisement. Both have been torn out in the same careless way; the top and the left margin are missing. Still she can make out that the ad is for discount diamonds and that you can send for a free catalog of diamonds “from $25 up to $5000.”
It’s not so much the words that hold Eva or the idea of discount diamonds, as the partial picture of a woman who appears at the top of the ad. Her face and arms gleam pale against a dark background and she is embracing a man who is only seen from the back. Because the ad has been so carelessly ripped, you don’t see the top of the woman’s face, but you see her thin, white fingers, one with a diamond wedding ring. The fingers are spread. One hand clutches the man’s back, the other is in his smooth dark hair. You see the curve of her jaw and the beginning of her chin. You see that head is thrown back and her lips are parted in an expression of ecstasy.
The woman, Eva thinks, looks like her. Not just the long fingers and the clean jaw line, but the expression as well.
Did Vick think so too, that he would tear the same ad out twice?
It is not until an hour later that Eva, back at the little kitchen table with a new pack of cigarettes, absently turns one of the little clippings over and sees that she has been looking at the wrong side. For on the back of both clippings is another advertisement, this one neatly torn out along the lines. The ad is headlined, “Fun in Mexico,” with a second line, “Retire on $150 a month.”
In the fine print, the ad invites readers to come to an American-English colony, Posada Ajijic, on Lake Chapala where they will find three hundred and sixty five days of sun a year and dry temperatures of sixty five to eighty degrees. Houses rent for ten dollars a month with full time servants and cooks costing seven to ten dollars a month. Or if you prefer, you can maintain a luxury villa with servants and all expenses for two hundred a month. Here in Mexico, the ad goes on, filet mignon is fifty cents a pound and gin, rum and brandy are sixty-five cents a fifth. Gas is seventeen cents a gallon. Here you’ll find: “No fog, smog, confusion, jitters. Just serene living among considerate people.”
To learn more about this opportunity, you could send two dollars to Robert Thayer, manager of Posada Ajijic, at a post office box in Jalisco and allow two weeks for full details to be airmailed back.
Instantly, Eva is certain this is where Vick has gone. She doesn’t know why he has gone to Mexico without her or why he couldn’t tell her but she is sure this is where he is. Could it be for his health, his lungs or just because something was making him nervous? Could it possibly be as some kind of surprise for her? He knows she has always yearned to travel and that she loves warm climates.
And now Eva, so weary with fear and dread, seizes on the idea that she will soon get a call or a letter from Mexico telling her to get her fanny on the train and come on down. She’s only known Vick for a little more than a year after all. Maybe there are still aspects to him she doesn’t understand. Maybe this is how he does things, thinks of something and then just up and does it. It certainly didn’t take him long to decide he wanted to get married.
Her mother won’t like the idea of her in Mexico, Eva knows, but she will just have to get used to the fact that this is how Eva and Vick live. Her mother has to realize that they are of the generation that came of age during the war. For better or worse, they’re used to quite a bit more excitement than the folks at home. And now, almost happy, Eva goes into the bedroom, puts on a fresh nightgown, and hugging the green sweater, falls asleep.
But the next morning, as she finds herself alone in the double bed, the idea that Vick has gone to Mexico to prepare a surprise for her doesn’t gleam as brightly as it had the night before. Still, it’s all she has. Eva tells herself she has to have faith, that this is a test of her love. At the same time she knows she can’t just sit and wait to hear from him. She’ll go mad.
Eva never learned to drive which is unusual. She grew up in the same mountain valley as I did where most farm kids were driving at twelve. But Eva was young during the Depression years when vehicles were scarce. You rode a horse, I suppose, or you walked. Or you just stayed home. Then too, at twenty-one, Eva left the farm and went across the state to the city of Portland where there was public transportation for the thousands of war workers. And of course, tires and gas were rationed so there wasn’t a lot of joy riding.
So now she starts trying to figure out get to Mexico by train.
In the papers that have come down to me I have Eva’s jotted notes, the little scraps of paper showing what she was learning, what she was considering. It looks like she’s called the railroad station and they’ve told her the closest she can get to Lake Chapala is Guadalajara. Eva notes this down, though she’s not too sure of the spelling. The price of a one-way ticket will be $118.80. For Eva, who makes about $150 a month, it’s a lot of money. And of course she has bills and her rent. Now too, as she must be realizing, she will have to make payments on the new car alone.
Instead of getting on a train for Guadalajara, Eva writes the first of a series of letters, addressing them to Vick in care of Robert Thayer at Posada Ajijic. She drafts the first letter on yellow scrap paper, then edits with cross-outs, additions and a few changes in sentence order, before re-copying onto airmail stationery. Her approach in this first letter has been carefully thought out. She feels that she is fighting for her life, and everything depends upon what she is able to communicate to Vick. The energy, effort and passion with which she writes makes it clear that she has convinced herself the letter will find him in Mexico.
Though she speaks in the first paragraph of her love that is so deep and true that it can be “only vaguely” described in words, the main job of the letter is to make a case for why Vick left, a case which does not allow for the possibility that Vick has simply walked out. Her own pain is barely mentioned. Rather the letter portrays Vick as a man who is heroically battling unimaginable personal suffering. Eva doesn’t say exactly what this ongoing battle entails, but does write, “I’ve often wondered if you were so hard and lacking in heart that you could go through what you have unscarred. Years of war, loneliness, sickness and the loss of most of your family. Now I know that you have normal human feelings & that it couldn’t help but affect you as it has thousands in one way or another.”
In addition to portraying Vick as locked in a struggle to overcome unimaginable pain, she portrays herself as the one at fault, a woman so selfishly in love, that she could not understand what her man needed: “I must have been a miserable failure as a wife or you could have felt like you could have told me of your past, your problems or the way you felt. Perhaps I was so blinded by my complete happiness with you that I saw nothing else.” And yet, she was not completely unaware: “I felt so close to you in one way & yet always as if something was between us.”
It is her great failing, she writes, that she could not detect what this “something” was. And she realizes now that she was doing and saying all the wrong things, talking about “settling down, getting a house, my family, having a baby.” Meanwhile Vick was “doing nothing but putting in such long hours, working hard and then coming home to an empty apt. Darling you are a wonderful man, anyone else would have flipped under it months before.”
And now Eva offers a plan. First, she will “sever” her relationship with her mother: “I don’t want her words of advice, her financial help or her well-meant kindness. All I want is you.” Second, she doesn't really want to settle down, doesn't care about all the things people are supposed to have. She needs “no home, no family, friends or so called worldly possessions. All I need or want is you. I love you more each day. Darling, just let me go with you, wherever you go & whenever you go and I will spend my life trying to make you happy.”
Maybe they can get a “cheaper car & a little house trailer” and hit the road together, living a life that replicates their honeymoon tour through the West, a time she remembers as the happiest in her life.
In the next weeks, she writes half a dozen such letters to Vick, sending them off to Mexico in care of Robert Thayer. One letter is written on March 10, their first wedding anniversary, and “the day that has more meaning to me than any other day in my life.” For this letter, Eva goes to the post office and pays thirty cents for a special delivery stamp.
But by the next letter, Eva has undergone a slight change. She has realized that she doesn’t want to cut her mother off after all: “It was just that I didn’t want anyone around if I couldn’t have you. And I couldn’t help feeling that if I hadn’t had family you would have taken me with you.”
Throughout the weeks of letter-writing Eva holds onto her scenario: The blinded-by-love Eva failed the suffering Vick. But Eva, if she could be given another chance, could learn to love him in the way he needs.
Only in the last of the letters does she falter: “The one horrible thought is that maybe you never really loved me. But I cannot believe it. I could not have loved you so much if my love had not been returned. Neither could you have been the wonderful husband you were for a year if you hadn’t cared.”
No. I just can’t be that he never loved her.
I know what Eva wrote in these letters to Mexico because they all came back to her in Boise, with a big blue fist stamped on the front of the envelope, the thumb pointing up to the address of Mrs. Virgil Vickers, Boise, Idaho. On one of the envelopes someone has written, “no conicido” and “no reclamada.”
Eva saved the letters and they have come down to me unopened.
[i] The Idaho Statesman, December 21, 1930.
[ii] His Girl Friday 1940.
[iii] Picnic 1955.
[iv] I Want to Live 1958.
[v] Blue Gardenia 1953.
[vii] The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, 1956; High Wall, 1948.