Off the Ground
“Swanky.” Miss Sackett, school librarian and girls’ basketball coach whistled. “Corrie’s papa has some heavy sugar.”
“Hope Miss Klemfuss doesn’t hear you.” Mac maneuvered his Tin Lizzie between a Pierce Arrow and the Chrysler parked on either side of the road. One scratch would cost his next paycheck.
Miss Sackett blew a raspberry. “We can sling slang to our heart’s content. No one invites the school secretary to their graduation party.”
He lowered his voice. “Miss Klemfuss hears all, sees all, knows all.”
“Class of twenty-nine! More than fine!” chanted three fellows in slacks and shirts as they crossed the road. None wore a suit coat or tie. Mac let out a breath. He’d borrowed a light-brown suit from Mr. Smooth’s closet. The cuffed slacks fit well, but the double-breasted coat was too big in the shoulders. He’d leave it in the car.
“Which house is it?”
Miss Sackett peered at the library catalog card on which she’d written Corrie’s address. “The big white one. Go ahead and park.”
“I’ll let you out by the front door.” He inched past another long touring car. Who in Omaha could afford a Duesenberg? “Haven’t spent all winter coaching your basketball team to have you hurt your leg again.”
“Ankle’s better than new.” She poked him with her cane. “Park now or I’ll bean you right in the kisser.”
Mac squeezed into the next spot. “What’s your hurry?”
“You got to take your shot before the other guy.”
“What other guy? What shot?”
“Mac McFarland, you’re not fooling anyone. You’ve been carrying a torch for Corrie since the day you met.”
Uh-oh. Did everyone know? Mac’s face heated as he ran around the car to help Miss Sackett out. “You were in surgery that day.” Which was how Mac had ended up as the substitute coach. The older woman glanced at the house and whistled. “How Corrie grew up unspoiled is beyond me.”
The mansion commanded the large lot. Mac counted fifteen windows on the front alone. Flowers bloomed along walkways. The United States, Nebraska, and Central High flags fluttered from a pole in the middle of the manicured lawn.
The librarian yanked her cloche over her gray curls, smoothed her skirt, and straightened her blouse, all in Central purple. She marched across the grass, holding her cane like a battle sword. “It’s graduation day. Corrie’s no longer a student, no longer subject to the rules of Central, no longer off limits. Ask her for a dance and a date. Don’t forget me when you send out wedding invitations.”
“As if her father would let her marry a Montgomery Ward’s clerk,” Mac muttered as they followed a group of students around the house.
She cocked an eyebrow in his direction. “Play your cards right, and you’ll be running a jewelry store.”
“Corrie has three brothers, one working in the family business.” “Three brothers …” Miss Sackett stopped, her head tilted.
“When the oldest was a freshman, their mother was always at school. She worked the circulation desk for me, served punch at National Honor Society receptions, decorated for dances. With the second boy, she began skipping school. By the third son, she’d show only for special events. I haven’t seen Mrs. Tinley once during the four years Corrie’s been at Central. Not once.”
The librarian looked from side to side, then leaned close. “Scuttlebutt in the teachers’ lounge notes the country club opened four years ago.”
It wasn’t right to run someone down while enjoying their hospitality, so Mac tried to find something positive to say. “Corrie’s brothers helped teach three-man defense and watched one of our games.”
“Let’s say hello then.” Jazz music drew them along a brick path to parklike backyard. Beneath an awning, a seven-piece band belted out the latest hits to dancers on a basketball court. A chef cooked on a grill and uniformed waiters tended a buffet next to the house. Guests gathered at round tables.
Miss Sackett whistled again. “The Tinleys put on the Ritz.”
“All this from a jewelry store?”
“I hear Papa has done quite well in the stock market.” Miss Sackett pointed to the crowd hopping to “Ain’t She Sweet.” “No need to babysit this old woman. Cut in and make your move.”
“I’ll find you a chair and some food.”
Fingers strong from typing hundreds of catalog cards pinched his chin. “Scram, you sap, or I’ll give you the bum’s rush.”
Mac grinned and headed for the dance floor.
“Good to see you, Mac!” Ernie Tinley, smartly dressed in a white suit, pumped Mac’s hand. “Still with Montgomery Ward’s? Let me introduce you to the Brandeis family. Move you up in the world.”
The luxury department store’s motto was “Everything you want is at Brandeis.” But right now, everything Mac wanted was on the dance floor. Not that he’d say that to one of Corrie’s brothers. “Maybe later.”
“Hey, Coach!” Mary Frances called.
Mac raised his arm—half in greeting, half in dismissal—as he worked his way through the party guests. Eyes on the goal, he’d told his team. His eyes were on Corrie. She spun across the dance floor, curls bouncing and skirt swirling. The Charleston was perfect for her long legs.
Miss Sackett was right—Mac could declare his intentions now. Or at least see if Corrie would be willing to date. She’d been giving off signals these past few months. They’d even talked a few times, real conversations, nothing to do with sports.
The captain of the boys’ basketball team steered Corrie across the floor. Traveling! Mac wanted to shout. Hit the bench! The kid raced to the far edge, bouncing Corrie’s outstretched arm as if dribbling, then pivoted her around. Corrie laughed, the bright sound carrying over the tune.
Here she comes! Twelve feet, ten feet, eight. Mac stepped onto the floor. He tapped the boy’s shoulder, nodded his thanks, then pulled Corrie closer than the Charleston required, his arm around her trim waist.
“Mac! Am I ever glad to see you!” She snuggled even closer and planted a too-quick kiss on his cheek. Her scent of Woodbury soap, “The Skin You Love to Touch,” had his head spinning.
“Let’s make plans!” he said into her ear.
Her smile widened into a big grin and her eyes sparkled. “Let’s!”
The band brought the song to a stop with a loud chord.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the bandleader shouted through the megaphone. “Mr. Tinley requests the presence of his honored guests at the barn, where he’s going to give Miss Corrie, the new graduate, her gift.” The band played a jazz rendition of “Pomp and Circumstance.”
“C’mon!” Corrie dashed for the large red building as if running for a basket. Mac lost her in the crowd. A pair of elderly women tut-tutted, fanning themselves with lace handkerchiefs.
“Walk, Cordelia Elizabeth!” Her mother shook her head. “That girl.”
“Whaddya think, Coach?” Corrie’s teammate Jackie joined Mac. “Every other father gives his girl a wristwatch. Or a typewriter if she’s college-bound. So what is Mr. Got Bucks giving his little princess?”
Corrie’s father had enough money to indulge his youngest, his only daughter, her every whim. “A car.” Jackie narrowed her eyes. “A yellow roadster.”
Would a girl with a new roadster date a fellow with a jalopy? She didn’t seem to mind riding in it to basketball games. “A horse.”
“A white Arabian.” Jackie lit a cigarette. “Or a motorcycle. Those sweet little Indians are really fast.”
Mac hoped not. Fast wasn’t safe.
Corrie bounced up and down, hugged her father, and untied the giant pink ribbon on the door handles. Her older brothers slid them open. Late afternoon sun lit a metal circle, a long wooden shaft, and black cylinders. Fuselage, wings, landing gear.
Jackie gasped. “An airplane.”
No. Not an airplane. Anything but an airplane.
Mac turned and pushed through the crowd to escape. But one glimpse had set off his nightmare.
The engine revved and spewed black smoke. The flimsy plane shuddered. Part of the tail snapped off. Wind screamed in the wires. Faster and faster it came, nearly straight down. The pilot’s head bobbed. Pull up, Henry! Get out! The plane slammed into the ground. The impact vibrated through Mac’s body. With a whoosh, fire engulfed the fragile airframe. The hot smell of gas, oil, and burning flesh choked him.
Someone called his name, but the roar of the fire muffled their voice. Clear of the crowd, Mac broke into a run. He made it to the corner of the neighbor’s house, where he lost his breakfast in a hydrangea bush.