Excerpt from Three Rings for Alice

Lisa J. Lickel

Love and respect in 1899 Milwaukee is as close as a phone call.

Alice Smith clasped her hands inside her rabbit muff and scurried across the frozen cobbled rubble that was Wells Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The usual weekday hustle, with clattering wagons stopping for deliveries, the shouts of boys chasing each other, shopkeepers hawking wares, and stony-faced maids on errands, was absent for the Sabbath rest. She and her friend, Minnie Kelly, were on their way back to Mrs. Robert’s Boarding Establishment for Young Ladies after attending a rousing service at Brother Amos’s Christian Servants Congregation. An imposing shadow cast by the spire of Milwaukee’s new city hall caught hold of Alice’s attention to the exclusion of all else. She studied the tapered outline ahead of her, as if it pointed toward her doom. She slowly lifted her face to the real building under construction and shivered. The edifice reminded her of the tower of Babel she had heard about a half hour earlier. Brother Amos’s stirring words rang in her mind with descriptions of ancient carpenters and bricklayers, clad in linen loincloths. She half expected such a man to come down the road, trundling a load of mortar. Though he would surely freeze if he were not wearing more than a loincloth.
Minnie barreled into her side like a derailed locomotive, and shoved her onto the curb just in time to avoid being struck by one of those rickety horseless carriages.
“I don’t know how those ghastly things can be allowed on the streets,” Minnie complained, as she shook her tiny fist at the careening vehicle. She gave her long green-checkered skirt a twist and shake to straighten her taffeta petticoats. Alice trembled, thankful for the strength of her friend, the top of whose head reached only as far as Alice’s nose. All spunk and vinegar, Minnie was, while Alice was practical as a modern woman should be.
“What were you dreaming about, anyway, silly?” Minnie demanded. “It’s not like you to daydream.”
Alice took a few calming breaths, such as she would take before her calisthenics routine. “Oh, you gave me a fright, Min.”
“I believe it was the Trundel boys in their obnoxious motor car, not me.”
Alice smiled and puckered her lips. She straightened Minnie’s bonnet over her friend’s red corkscrew curls, retied the ribbons, and thanked heaven for such a guardian angel. “I was just wondering about my future.”
“Worrying, you mean.” Minnie turned the conversation away from the serious subject, like always. “You’ve got your new blue wool on, I see. That jacket makes you look as professional as any man. I meant to compliment you earlier. It matches your eyes. I shall never have as lovely skin as yours no matter how many milk and honey washes I perform.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Alice patted her hat into place. “The suit cost two weeks’ worth of board money. I’ve been so anxious about losing my job. I know I shouldn’t have, though I needed new clothes, and I had been saving.” She stared at the strikingly tall city hall building. “Oh, Minnie, the dedication ceremony is already next Monday. Christmas is just ruined for me. Mayor Koch said they decided to install those new rotary telephones. They won’t need a switchboard operator any more. What’ll I do?”
The diminutive Minnie clutched Alice by the elbow and pulled her toward Mrs. Robert’s three-story Victorian. “It’s too cold to stand about moping. Did the mayor release you from service?”
“Then go back to being the practical Alice who has no time for gadfly notions. Oh, Alice, you practically run the place. You know just how to talk to people so they don’t get annoyed, and you know everyone’s schedule. Without you, the whole city would stumble to a halt.”
She and Minnie clattered the few hollow steps up to the gray painted porch and crossed the wide boards. Minnie opened the wooden door. Eau de Yankee Pot Roast, Mrs. Robert’s Sunday special, caressed them while they hung their wraps. “Besides, you could always work for Emma at her stenography business.”
“True. I love the switchboard, though. Are we still meeting the boys and Selma later?”
Minnie grinned. “Right. At the Baby Park.”
“Don’t be so romantic, Min. Baby Park is just a name. You don’t have to get all weak in the knees at the thought. We’re modern women. And besides, you know Frank will propose to you soon.”
“I’ll wait for Harry and Selma first.” Minnie laughed then sobered as they took their seats at the lace-covered dining table, joining two other ladies and the dour but kind Mrs. Robert, who nodded grimly and led the meal time prayer.
Alice reached for the bread basket and plucked a golden brown roll. “I’m never marrying, of course.” After growing up at the Protestant Orphan Asylum, no one would dictate her every move, her every breath, ever again.