This story is by Beth Schmelzer and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“I Only Have Eyes for You”
“Come on, Sue. You need to take a break and it IS Saturday night! The first mixer of the school year. Guys have returned from the war and the house will be crawling with men waiting to meet us!” My roommates were octopuses dragging my arms in every direction. Socializing at the frat house down the street from our house was their main agenda.
“Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” was the first song I heard from the piano at the fraternity house at a fall mixer. My sorority sisters had pulled me away from the intense journalism deadline obsessing me.
When we walked in the door, a memory from long ago, the melody of Dad’s favorite song hit me.
“My dad used to sing that song to me,” I whispered to Mary Alyce, as we glanced at a huddle of men around the grand piano. My eyes were drawn to a skinny guy behind the keys. All the other men wore jackets and ties, but the piano player had on a simple cotton shirt. Those eyes were magnets, attracting me towards him.
“Come in, ladies,” a redheaded brawny guy gestured to us. “Les is just beginning his repertoire. Make a request.”
“Go ahead, Sue,” Mary Alyce said in my ear.
One guy grabbed another of my sisters and started dancing on the living room rug, as the songs rolled off the piano nonstop. Another guy began to sway to the music.
My mind was reeling from competing thoughts: I should be writing my article; I needed a break from schoolwork; and I never wanted to be dependent on a man as Mother had been until Daddy’s illness.
The tunes from the piano brought my mind back to the guy playing. He had big, black glasses behind which I noticed those sparkling blue eyes. He looked up from his fingers on the keyboard which seemed to be playing only for me.
As Les began another tune, more guys and women began to pair off. They semed matched by a silent director in a play. Couples began to jitterbug to “The Boogie, Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.”
That Andrews Sisters’ tune took me back to NYC with Mother. Far from Bloomington. Then I leaned toward the piano as I fixed my own blue eyes on the maestro at his keyboard. My feet danced over closer to the piano so I could glance at his music rack. Les surprised me because he had no sheet music to read.
The redhead, Rusty, noticed my eyes that flew from the hands at the keys up to the music rack. “He plays by ear. Go ahead, tell Les your favorite song.” Rusty gestured to me gently to bring me closer to the piano.
The group of men around Les dispersed and greeted each of my sisters who entered their spacious living room. An elderly woman sitting knitting in a flowered wing chair grinned up at the couples pairing off.
I didn’t stand too close to Les. I moved, hiding behind the piano lid, so I could look at the pale face of this talented musician where he could not see me.“What’s your song, little lady?” I heard his baritone voice sing out. He spied my lame attempt at concealment.
“You’ve already played a memory from home. My dad used to call me five foot two.”
Les picked up on the song title and added, “Yes, I can see your baby blues. What’s your name? And where did you come from?”
“Sue from Trenton,” I answered softly. Never known as a quiet mouse, I surprised myself when the words escaped my lips in an unlikely tone.
“It’s time for my break. Let’s get something to eat and drink, Sue. When we come back, I’ll sing Oh, Susannah!” Les closed the piano board over the keys and drew himself up to his full five foot eight height.
Our heights seem to go well together. Staccato thoughts burst from my brain as we walked into the dining room for some food. I am hungry.
“You have the most beautiful complexion, Sue from Trenton. What brought you to Indiana University?”
“I followed my big brother who came here on a track scholarship. But then he had to join the army. He writes for the Stars and Stripes in the Pacific. Mother and Dad hope he’ll be home soon.” I warmed up to conversation when I could talk about anyone else but myself. My brother Lee was always on my mind.
“What’s your major? Did you follow your brother in that area, too, Sue?”
“Yes, Lee and I are both in the Journalism school. I guess it is “in our blood” as Mother would say,” I answered. Memories of Dad sitting in his writing chair competed with this conversation. “How about you, Les?” My voice trembled when I said his name for the first time.
“My major is Physical Education. I hope to teach. By the way, I am from the east also. Buffalo, New York was my home town. Glad to be away from my stuffy family,” he explained.
I shivered as he was too close to my own feelings. I hesitated as I picked up a small plate for the appealing-looking cocktail sandwiches on the dining room table. A cool fall breeze blew in the window from the brisk outdoors.
“Les, come back to the piano. We want to dance some more!” We heard frat brothers call from the living room.
“Piano playing is my only talent besides cartwheels on the gymnastics team.” He laughed from his whole face, his eyes lighting and the smile spreading to his small mouth. My own grin turned up at the corners when he mentioned his antics on the gym team. I pictured him performing.
“Come on, Les!” We heard more cajoling from the other room. Les handed me his plate with only one bite out of his sandwich. Our hands brushed each other and I felt that thrill I had only read about in romance novels.
He left my side to return to his piano. He was most at home sitting on the bench behind the keyboard. Another of his brothers asked me to dance to “In the Mood.” I closed my eyes pretending Les was singing in my ear, holding me close. This guy asked me for my name and number and I mumbled, barely thinking.
The next day, while I was typing my story at “The Daily Student,” Les visited me at Ernie Pyle’s building to ask me for our first date. He promised to take me to Nick’s Bar and Grill in Bloomington.
“That’s all she wrote” Daddy used to say when something was inevitable.
We dated for two years and then Les got a job at the YMCA in Fort Wayne. I worked on my journalism and sociology classes. I discovered he had more talents than he professed: he was president of the fraternity and in several clubs. Writing for “The Daily Student” was the only activity that kept me from dreaming about my life with Les far from our homes in Trenton and Buffalo.
Our love grew as we shared the value of starting our new lives away from our cold families. Buffalo was freezing in the winter and felt even chillier when Les’s family froze us out. They had discovered our love of singing and dancing, surrounded by friends who brought beer and cigarettes. Only his portly Aunt Lydia welcomed me when we visited Buffalo. I realized that my sweetheart’s warmth, plus his sarcasm, were learned from dear Aunt Lydia.
Our music tastes mirrored our humor and lightness. “If You Were the Only Girl in the World” joined our favorite song of “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue.” We married in February of 1947.
Soon our reading reflected our feelings of newness and life beginning. We both used our creativity to write book reviews for the latest books published in the post-war years. We liked James Hilton, Theodore Dreiser, and John Prebble’s novels. Laughing over the stories in Jack Conroy’s Midland Humor tied us to our new Midwest roots.
Les and I kept the LIFE Magazine of November, 1945, where my sisters were featured showing our ruffled backsides in a “Can-Can” line. “Indiana Can-Can Nebraska” was our honorable mention slogan showing our support for our football team. It was embarrassing, but no one could spot our faces.
Les said he could pick me out of the backwards kick line by my skinny ankles and tight bottom. Only he knew for certain. That picture in the magazine reminded us of how we met at that first fall mixer at his fraternity house. Greek life, song titles, books, and laughter brought us together along with our ambition to be professionals away from our distant families.