Two decades after it happened Herb Swanson began to tell it at dinner parties. He knew every inch of the trivia. He knew that the forgotten star (Westerns) who burned to death that night was named Buck Jones. Nowadays people never heard of the guy from Adam but back then Buck Jones, no joke, was big as Gene Autry. He knew that the final death toll was 492, including the five firemen, not 474 like some accounts still say. Herb knew that the name of the busboy who struck the match to change the light bulb that lit the ceiling to start the greatest conflagration in the history of Boston—to this day you can’t call a business Cocoanut Grove within Boston city limits, not even if you sell cocoanuts—was named Stanley Tomaszewski. Wretched Stanley Tomaszewski—escaped out the kitchen door and lived out the next what odd years of his life guilt-struck in Waltham, hearing those screams in his sleep.
Then Herb would lower his voice and say in a whisper tinged with breathy awe: Listen, it’s just after 10:00. Ro and I are upstairs in the dining room. Micky Alpert’s just launched into the first chords of the “Star Spangled Banner.” There’s palm trees and pina coladas all over the place like we’re in Tahiti. Waiters spin through the crowd with trays hoisted over their heads like ancient high priests sending up offerings to the Gods when it—
At this point though Herb would always hustle past the actual fire of the story. What mattered when Herb told the Cocoanut Grove was the great aftermath. The courage of the fireman, the heroics of the policeman, the essential contributions of the Woman’s Army Relief Corps. How the people of Boston joined together in the face of such disaster, a beautiful thing amid all that incalculable horror. Even prepared people for what was to come soon enough with our boys being sent back from France wrapped in the flag.
Still Herb couldn’t ignore the fact of the fire itself. His credibility depended on it. What mattered when Herb Swanson told the Cocoanut Grove was the almighty fact of his and Rosalie’s having been there, having survived it. Got lucky was all he’d really say. Our number wasn’t up. Happens. Simple. All there is to it. Our table was near one of the few exits that didn’t get blocked up with people right away. We were the fourth couple out the door. For years Rosalie never said anything when Herb told the story and this too gave it a mystique. It was too painful for her to talk about, to remember.
Yet at some point, when both of them were well into their sixties, as Herb continued to prattle on and on about flammable ceiling material, how the biggest problem from a fire-safety perspective was that the few exit doors opened inward, how there were no sprinklers either, how four brothers from the little hamlet of Wilmington, Massachusetts all died in it and the town put up a statue of them on the green—Rosalie began to enter the story with her own details, quietly at first. She’d talk about how the fire was less like a wall and more like a flapping curtain. She’d talk about how it was more windy than hot. She’d talk about the soot-covered sailor in the doorway, the one with the barefoot girl draped in his arms like a bride, the one from the famous Life photograph, the one all the newspapers called an angel dispatched from heaven. Well, yes, I did see him that night. Before it. A hard man not to notice—let me be honest. But I wasn’t a slouch then either. I swished by him in my latest red dress. I was thin then, if you can believe it. Still hippy, but thin, maybe even a little beautiful in a certain light, and, yeah, she’d purr, sailor boy winked at me. And Herb would shout across the table (because even then it was a performance and they were both supporting players): Everything she says is true. Beautiful then, beautiful now, my Rosie. I wanted to break the jack tar’s neck, but Rosie said, let him stare, it’s patriotic.
And Rosalie, whispering now: After he left that bride on the sidewalk, sailor boy went back inside that fire.
And then Herb: Poor kid. He didn’t make it. Died of his burns two days later at Boston City.
Herb Swanson was a dentist and a hail-fellow-well-met kind of guy. You don’t get to be the most popular dentist in Skokie, Illinois for nothing. And in his line of work he needed a reputation for telling good stories. Rosalie didn’t need stories any more than she needed the interminable dinner parties Herb loved so much. Yet there was something, wasn’t there, even for her, about that fire? Maybe it was simply those two words together. Funny to think of a grove of coconuts on Piedmont Street. Or maybe it was that sailor’s famous pudgy cockeyed face. An unshaped face, an unravaged face. And yet it was him that went back in that night. Whatever it was, something happened when Rosalie joined Herb’s story. As if she’d actually known it. As if that dead boy was more than a picture she’d seen in a magazine. Because none of it was ever true. The Cocoanut Grove didn’t happen to them. She never saw that sailor and neither had Herb. There was no “Star Spangled Banner,” at least not in their ears. (Herb read that somewhere; Herb read everything somewhere.) As for the sober facts: Herb was stationed at Camp Edwards. Rosalie had come out from Chicago to visit him. So he took her out. To the Cocoanut Grove! So they were at the club that night. This much was whole truth. But Herb’s stomach was acting up and this time it was more than a bad case of farts. They left an hour before the fire. Saved by indigestion! But what kind of story would that make? A one-shot laugher, not the kind you tell and tell again. And much more important, not the kind of story that gave you the incontestable authority of the messenger. And I only am escaped alone to tell you. Anyway, 20, 30, 40 years on, who was going to know, or care? Harmless table talk. And if you think about it, in a way, they had escaped, hadn’t they? They just didn’t know that’s what they were doing when they retrieved their coats from the hatcheck sweetie (she didn’t survive—she was from Maiden, engaged) and marched out into the chill and burr of an ordinary Boston November night. Why split hairs?
Rosalie began to play along more intensely, sometimes even stealing it and going her own way. Her eyes would get bleary. She’d talk with her fork suspended near her mouth as if something crucial to understanding everything had only then just crossed her mind. Everybody would stop chewing to listen. Like a horde except that nobody was moving in the same direction. You see? Had people moved en mass in the right direction, maybe it would have been different. See? What you have to understand is that it wasn’t the heat or the flames or even the dread smoke. It was the people. How they changed so fast into—
Then she’d pause and take a breath, that fork still up in the air by her nose: I’m not saying I blame them. No. God no. I love them. How can you not love them?
But somehow her saying this was worse than the melting walls and the charred bodies and the unopenable doors, or even the useless, desperate screams, which she never talked about but were always there in her voice. Herb knew how many fire departments responded to the alarm, towns as far as New Bedford. He knew the score of the Boston College-Holy Cross game. BC 12, Holy Cross 55. He knew how many young and virile lives were saved by that humiliation because Boston College had to call off the victory party scheduled for that night at the Cocoanut Grove. He knew the name of the second-to-last last Buck Jones picture, his greatest, Forbidden Trails, where Buck barebacks up a mountain backwards shooting Navajos. But he had no talent for putting people inside that club and the truth is that Herb began to be a little frightened by his wife. The last thing Rosalie cared about was hoodwinking anybody about what she did or didn’t see that night in 1942, and yet when she got started in about things like fingernails tearing the flesh of the shoulders, it was as though she couldn’t stop. I don’t blame them, she’d repeat. Clawing each other. Even husbands and wives. And Herb would watch her anxiously, fidgeting, waiting for an opening and a chance to rescue the story. Bring it back to Stanley Tomaszewski and an interview he did with the Globe on the 30th anniversary of the fire, in 1972, where he said he prays for the souls of those innocents every day and often visits their graves, the ones who are here in Massachusetts. He told the reporter that the movie star was too far way, but that he’d always wanted to make that trip out to California. That was the story! Stanley Tomaszewski prostrate before the headstones! The busboy barefoot to Hollywood! Because it was almost as though Rosalie (even though she always denied it) judged them for trying to save themselves which was wrong and strange and not at all the point. The point was glory. The point was redemption. Think of all the good that came out of that fire. Municipal solidarity. New fire codes for every public building in the United States of America. Great advancements in emergency medicine and response.
And there’s a night, isn’t there, when Rosalie stares at Herb as if there’s nobody else in the room even though they are having dinner with the Selvins and Tony Bickleman and his latest wife Maureen and they’re all sitting right there. Not their fault, such rage, Rosalie says, not their fault. There’s nobody else in the room and Herb watches her watching him and he tries not to listen and he vows to himself he’ll never bring up the Cocoanut Grove again, ever. He even goes one further and promises himself that one of these days he’ll come clean, which after all these years would make a good story in itself. It never happened, folks. We weren’t there. I lied. My dear friends, let me be frank, the long and the short of it was (pause) Pepto Bismol. I stand before you a prevaricator, and for this I want to apologize. And he can hear Harvey Selvin saying, for Christ’s sake, Herb, it’s a story. Story’s a story. And Tony: And I wasn’t shot at Anzio either, shot at, but not shot. I always say shot. What’s the difference? Could abin, couldn’t I abin?
Around the middle of the 1980s, not long after he retired, Herb did stop mentioning the Cocoanut Grove in public. And when he stopped, Rosalie stopped. She’d never initiated it; she’d only carried it places it wasn’t supposed to go. This didn’t mean that Herb gave it up. He couldn’t. Herb in his chair looking out on the backyard and Rosalie’s in the garden on her hands and knees among her beloved plants and him not being able to flee from a recurring image of himself inside. The fire is there in the panic in the room, but the flames are still—in this slowed vision of time—a long way off. And yet Herb flings himself against the crowd, elbows cocked like an offensive lineman, trying to use his bulk to flow forward, shouting absurdly, Make way! I’m a doctor! While Rosalie remains at their table. Rosalie sips her scotch. After he stopped telling the Cocoanut Grove out loud, this is the part that began to alarm him the most. This is what made him try to banish those two words from his brain like the city of Boston forbade them from the commercial register. Rosalie serene. Not in any dreams in the morning in the den in his chair awake. Her in the garden outside.
And when she died it all got more vivid. The specter of her sitting and watching. Her lack of fear. She left the same way. That morning she’d been talking about craving fresh cucumber salad. When in my life have I ever eaten cucumber salad? As she napped in the guest room with her clothes on, a stroke took her away from him at a quarter to twelve on a Tuesday. It wasn’t that he hadn’t known her. He had. It wasn’t that she hadn’t loved him. She had. And she’d always been Rosie, always the girl in the red dress who got the twice over from sailors and sauced it right back. Still, she always held herself, not alone, apart. Maybe this was why people craved her sole attention. When the kids were little and even after they’d gone away, they were still always trying to get their mother away from Herb in order to be listened to, beg advice, confess. They didn’t want Herb’s bigheartedness, his hugs, all his compassionate blather. Mom, I shoplifted. Mom, I’m strung out. Mom, I’m getting a divorce. Mom, I’m broke again. Mom, I’m tired, I don’t know why I’m so tired. She’d stare back at them like they were strangers. No answers or empathy or even comfort. What did you give—what? Tell me. Talk to me, Ro, I’ll listen. Herb in his chair by the window, overlooking her azaleas.
The glare of the sun white against the glass. A frenzied waiter douses a blazing tinsel palm tree with seltzer water and Rosalie laughs, raises a long thin finger slowly to her lips, and breathes, Let it come, Herb, just let it—
—Peter Orner is the author of the novel The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo; winner of the Bard Fiction Prize; and the collection, Esther Stories; winner of the Rome Prize from American Academy of Arts and Letters. His work has appeared in the Paris Review, the Atlantic Monthly, and this magazine. He recently completed editing a book of oral histories called Underground America due out this spring from McSweeney’s Books. “Herb and Rosalie Swanson at the Cocoanut Grove” appeared in a different form in Black Warrior Review, Volume 30, Issue No. 2, 2004.