The painting I finally chose, "Red Buttons," was painted in 1936 in egg tempera on board. Coincidentally, it's now in the Huntington Library's collection, so one day soon, I can visit the original.
My story is called "A Friend in Need" and it's 992 words long. If you go to Patti's site, you'll find links to the other stories participating in the challenge.
A FRIEND IN NEED
Nancy met Bea at Child’s Cafeteria when they both reached for the last piece of lemon meringue pie. “Let’s share it,” Bea suggested, and simple as that they were sitting at a table, talking like old friends.
Bea told Nancy she worked for an insurance company as a comptometer operator, making $28 a week, which sounded like a fortune to Nancy.
Nancy’s father ran a general store back in Ohio and delivered mail as a rural route carrier too. Gas was only ten cents a gallon but there were times when scraping together enough to fill the tank was hard because he let so many people run tabs at his store.
Nancy knew her parents were worried about her living in New York City, even though she was sharing a place with her cousin and her husband.
Nancy’s parents were one generation away from farm folk and had a deep suspicion of the big city.
Still, they knew the only work available to her in Ohio was back-breaking farm labor and they didn’t want that for their only child. Nancy had skills. She could type-write and she knew Gregg shorthand.
They were sure she’d be able to find employment in New York, so they sent her off with their blessing and $48 they’d saved up.
Her father had also sent her off with the admonition to stay away from Harlem—“No good can come of associating with colored people,” he’d told her—and her mother had added her own, vague warnings to avoid “mashers” and “men who only want one thing.”
Bea had laughed when Nancy imitated her mother’s warning about men, and taken another bite of the pie.
“How fast can you type?” Bea asked.
“Seventy words a minute,” Nancy replied proudly. She could actually type a lot faster but if she did, the keys started jamming.
“And you can do shorthand?”
“Yes,” Nancy said, excited by Bea's interest. She’d only had a couple of interviews since arriving in the city and her cousin had started suggesting that she could really use some help with the rent. Nancy knew she was wearing out her welcome.
“Do you know someone who’s looking for a secretary?” Nancy asked hopefully.
“I do,” Bea said with a smile. “Are you doing anything this afternoon? Can you come back with me to meet my boss?”
“His secretary is leaving to get married and he needs a new girl.”
“Bea, that would be wonderful,” Nancy said. “Am I dressed all right?”
"I'd hire you," Bea said, reaching out to adjust the little scarf at the neckline of Nancy's red dress.
When she did, she saw the crooked stitching along the top of the bodice.
Nancy was embarrassed. “I made the dress myself,” she admitted shyly.
Bea smiled warmly. “I wish I could sew,” she said. “Store-bought dresses are so expensive.”
“I love the dress you’re wearing,” Nancy said.
“You’re so sweet” Bea said as the two women emerged from the cafeteria.
“How far away is your office?” Nancy asked, wondering if Bea planned on taking a taxi.
“Not far,” Bea said, “and you don’t have to worry. My boyfriend always picks me up after lunch and drives me back to the office.”
Nancy perked up at the mention of a boyfriend. The only boys she’d met at her cousin’s apartment were intense young Jews who wanted to talk about politics and how the Olympics had made a monkey out of Hitler.
“Joe,” Bea said. “You’ll like him. All the girls do, but he’s mine.” She smiled without showing her teeth, which Nancy thought made her look a little mean. "All mine," she repeated.
Bea looked toward the street. “There he is now,” she said as a sleek black Chrysler touring car slid to the curb.
A dark-haired guy in a snazzy suit jumped out of the car and ran around to open the door for Bea.
“Hiya doll,” he said, kissing her on the cheek and giving Nancy a once-over so thorough she started to blush. “Who’s your friend?”
“Nancy,” Bea said, “meet Joe.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said.
“Nancy’s coming with me back to the office,” Bea said. “I told her about the job working for Mr. Whitehall. She can type and knows shorthand. Mr. Whitehall is going to love her.
“Well, that’s swell,” Joe said.
Joe and Bea chatted all the way back to the office, with Bea gracefully drawing Nancy into the conversation. When Nancy admitted she hadn’t seen the new Humphrey Bogart picture Petrified Forest, Bea exclaimed that she must come to the movies with her and Joe the next time they went.
The invitation made Nancy feel more welcome than she had since she arrived.
The warm feeling lasted until Joe parked outside an old warehouse with the name “Whitehall” on it.
“This is your office?” Nancy asked, a little alarmed.
“I know if doesn’t look like much on the outside,” Bea said.
“Come on,” she added impatiently as Nancy hesitated
Against her better judgment, Nancy followed the other woman through the door.
The warehouse was filled with iron cots separated by curtains. Young women lay on the beds, their ankles shackled to the bed frames.
Nancy turned to bolt but Joe was right behind her.
“No you don’t,” he said as he grabbed her.
Nancy reached for Bea and caught one of the red buttons on her smart yellow dress.
As Joe wrenched Nancy away, the button tore off, pulling a swatch of fabric with it.
“You stupid bitch,” Bea yelled, slapping Nancy.
Holding her dress closed over a graying slip, Bea surveyed the room for an open bed.
“There,” she said, pointing. “Put her there.”
As Joe chained Nancy to the bed, Bea looked down at her with a smirk.
“Your mother was right,” she said, “men just want one thing.”
Bea turned away as Joe pulled the curtain and began unbuckling his belt.