by Anthony Dobranski
(Read Chapter 1 of this serial novel set in World War Two-era Forest Hills.)
Dorothy Sharpe felt her mood turning sour. There were no more Moscow Mule cocktails on offer, and she was wedged into a prickly wicker loveseat by the wide spread of Mildred Jansen. She sipped her bitter coffee and tried to believe it was Irish.
Not that Dorothy had much to kick about. Grilled food, open air, and fresh company were all a welcome break from Dorothy’s first hectic week in Washington. After frantic days in the rough scrum of new wartime workers, and tiring nights rearranging her sister’s small apartment to make room for both herself and her sister’s impending baby, a dinner party at a house was a swell treat.
They had eaten a grilled chicken dinner in the Sanders’s dining room but the evening had brought a fine breeze through the windows. Afterward, Eleanor Sanders invited them to eat Mildred Jansen’s sugarless peach pie out on the Sanders’s small porch, where the tinny brass bands on the radio and the crickets in the Victory Garden seemed to work together. Dorothy and her sister Shirley, Mildred and Bill Jansen, and their hostess sat around a low wicker table. Dorothy’s brother-in-law Leo Ashe sat slightly away with his boss Ted Sanders, talking shop in armchairs. Shirley and Leo’s seven-year-old son Benny had disappeared into the house, preferring the chance to escape grownups even to pie.
“Anyone for more?” Mildred asked, turning first to Dorothy. Mildred was a plump woman, her gray-streaked hair all askew from the humid air.
“It’s delicious, but thank you, no,” Dorothy said.
“So clever that you made it without sugar,” Shirley Ashe said, leaning forward with difficulty to offer her plate. Both sisters had wavy brown hair and their mother’s long narrow faces, but Shirley’s was the sweeter even before the softness of pregnancy. “I’ll take another piece.”
“Of course you will,” Mildred said. “You’re eating for two.”
Mildred’s husband Bill, as plump and sweaty as his wife but with no hair to soak it up, passed Shirley’s plate to Mildred and his also.
“More for me too, Millie. So what’s my excuse?” he asked, to laughter.
Ted blew thick smoke that smelled like prunes from a curved pipe. Maybe that was why Dorothy was so glum. Just because Benny had been born a little small, Shirley’s silly doctor had said to avoid cigarettes. As if other peoples’ smoke could bother you. Dorothy wanted a smoke, but Shirley had gotten so testy about it, it wasn’t worth asking. She settled for Ted’s smoke. Cheaper than paying rent, at any rate.
“I used honey,” Mildred was saying. “Honey in a pie! I would never have thought it until my cousin Bertie wrote me from Louisville with the recipe.”
“Wonder if honey would work in a gin sour,” Dorothy said. “Not that those Moscow Mules weren’t fine.”
Shirley shot Dorothy a stern look, but others smiled.
“Those were good, weren’t they? Let’s hope they don’t ration vodka,” Bill said. “I still haven’t gotten over Prohibition!” Bill’s eyes settled on Dorothy, a little hard. “So Dottie, you’re one of those government girls, I hear?”
“One week, so far.”
“That’s just great,” Bill said, “how you gals are taking on the work, while the menfolk fight this damned war.”
“And so nice you can live with family,” Mildred added. “All those poor girls living in rented rooms – in boarding houses, like brush salesmen. It isn’t right. Oh, this war.”
“Staying with family has been a blessing,” Dorothy said, as nicely as she ever could.
“What do they have you doing?” Eleanor Sanders asked. She was a lean woman, with mousy features and hair neither long nor full. The glasses on a chain around her neck added to her bookish air but when she spoke she commanded attention. “Something interesting, I hope.”
“If only. Really, it’s been a terrific letdown so far,” Dorothy admitted. “I spent the first three days sitting in a waiting room reading.”
“All those girls just sitting around?” Bill asked. “You’d think they’d have them knit the boys socks or something.”
“Bill, it’s not a shoe store,” Eleanor said. “It’s hard work to find jobs for a thousand people.”
“They’ve found me some filing,” Dorothy said. “I don’t mean to complain. It’s not as if I have a skill like nursing. Or knitting. And like Eleanor said, you wouldn’t believe all the people! It’s more crowded than anything I’ve ever seen.”
“She’s so good with the buses,” Shirley added. “I’m already asking her how to go places, and I’ve been here four months.”
“I’m sure they won’t keep you idle forever,” Eleanor said. “Have you worked before?”
“I was in teacher’s college,” Dorothy said. “For art.”
“Dorothy’s a talented artist,” Shirley added.
“Indeed? If the filing can spare you,” Eleanor said, “the Bureau is always looking for people good with their hands.”
“Is that so?” The National Bureau of Standards, a great campus just down Connecticut Avenue, had brought Leo and Shirley to Washington. Leo would only describe his job as “workaday science,” and further questions made him uncomfortable. For Eleanor to bring it up so casually took Dorothy aback.
Eleanor tapped the arm of Ted’s chair. “Ted, what do you think?”
“Hmm, what was that?” Ted looked at the rest of them as if they had just appeared. He was a small man and not handsome, with a craggy face and a shock of white hair. Leo had been equally cagey about what Ted did, but it was clear he had valued highly the invite to the party. Between that implicit praise and his clear ability to keep the impressive Eleanor happy in a marriage, Dorothy felt there was more to Ted than met the eye. “Leo was telling me about some fascinating new records they engineer in New York. Twenty minutes of music on a side.”
“That’d make for one big Victrola,” Bill said.
“Actually it’s no bigger,” Leo said. He was a skinny man, his face still boyish behind thick owlish glasses, voice tremulous as if he wanted to be both sixteen and sixty. Dorothy and Leo had never been close, but he’d been swell since her arrival. Sometimes, hard times brought the best out of people. “The records spin slower. Of course with the war I don’t expect we’ll see them soon.”
“Ted?” Eleanor asked.
“Yes, Eleanor? What do I think about what?”
“Dorothy’s an artist. Don’t you need that sort of thing?”
“Why, yes,” Ted said. “Yes. Have you done any modeling?”
The question stumped Dorothy. “You mean, posing for drawings?”
“Ted, speak English,” Eleanor snapped. “He means, have you ever built realistic scale models from drawings?”
“That’s a skill I do have,” Dorothy said. It wasn’t true, but if it got her out of the filing routine, and off that darned bus, she’d figure it out.
“Excellent,” Ted said.
“So you’ll look into it?” Eleanor asked.
“Into what, dear?”
“I’ll explain it to him later,” Eleanor said. “Save you a bus ride, maybe.”
“You know,” Shirley said, “I think I brought a child to this party.”
“Benny’s fine,” Leo said. “Ted dug out an old Erector set. I hope he doesn’t build a bridge across your parlor.”
“Didn’t donate that to the metal drive?” Bill said. Dorothy liked Bill less and less.
“It’s a scientific instrument,” Ted said, with a hurt tone. “I don’t know about your fellows, Bill, but we’re always using them. Up in New Haven some fellows are even using them for cardiac research.” Ted turned to Leo. “You bring that boy to play with it any time he likes.”
On the radio, the big bands had given way to grim news about the merciless fighting in Stalingrad, where the Nazis hoped to cut off Russian food and fuel before winter. Ted went in and turned it off. A minute later, he came back followed by Benny, who proudly carried Leo’s violin case. “Since Mr. Dorsey and his friends have taken a break, we’ve asked Mr. Ashe to fill in.”
Leo made short work of tuning while Dorothy helped Eleanor clean up the dishes. When she returned from the kitchen, she took Leo’s armchair. “After a week on the L2 bus,” Dorothy said, “you learn to grab open seats.” Ted smiled yellow teeth at her.
Leo tapped the bow on the violin. “I didn’t want to fuss with sheet music,” he said. “So I’ll play what I know from memory, but if I miss a note don’t be hard. This is Chopin, one of his nocturnes. It’s, uh, short.”
The nocturne began as long, slow phrases, like whispered prayers. As the music grew faster, it quivered but also grew more assured – as if by desire alone, the music found what it desired, and peace with it.
Everyone applauded when Leo ended. Ted called out “Encore! Encore!” The others took up the chant, and Benny ran up to hug Leo’s leg.
Leo blushed with pride. “One more then. This is a bit of Mozart. It’s more uptempo.”
He played tremendously fast, the music bracing and refreshing like a cold rain. Leo had clearly been practicing, and he felt good about it, a smile on his face and a swing in his stance. Benny started to dance in a circle, and Dorothy got up to join him.
“Hey!” A loud shout outside the house. The bushes by the porch rustled and cracked, and the fence door slammed open.
They all went to the porch railing, and saw a man in black running through the yard – chased by a soldier in uniform!
NEXT WEEK: A fight!