Thursday was Dorothy’s second full day of work at her new assignment in the Munitions Building, a few blocks south of the War Department building where she had first reported. Despite the name, the Munitions Building was mostly offices, and the people not in uniform wore office clothes, not overalls.
Dorothy was one of a group of girls packing up stacks of maps to be moved to a new Army Map Service building near Dalecarlia Reservoir. The group had little supervision, but her colleagues were sensible gals, no goldbricks in the bunch. It was tedious and sweaty work, with maps dating to the Great War and a coating of dust as old. The packaging tape dispensers, portable marvels hardly bigger than a ladies’ shoe, felt heavy as hot irons by the end of the day. Just snapping open her handbag to put away her yellow civilian worker badge shot pain through her wrist.
No one in the military seemed to have figured out how to stagger the workday. Both morning and evening, workers overran the intersection of Constitution Avenue and 20th Street NW, blocking rush-hour traffic no matter how the policemen whistled at them.
That evening, the clouds were gray and low, and even in Washington’s already swampy air, it felt like rain. Dorothy could take the R4 bus up to K Street and change to the L buses, but after breathing dust all day, she was in the mood for a walk, rain be damned. She let the crowd carry her east, past the bland white enormities of the Munitions Building and its Navy Department twin. One of the gals had told her the buildings were meant to be temporary, so President Roosevelt had made them ugly so no one would want to keep them – yet there they stood, twenty years on. They would probably stay forever.
On 18th Street, Dorothy stopped at a newsstand in sight of the I Street bus stop.
The Posts were all gone, and bringing home the gossipy, virulently anti-Roosevelt Times Herald would get her snippy remarks from Leo. She bought an Evening Star, along with the new issue of Life for Shirley and a Wild West comic book for Benny. She had only a couple of nickels left in her coin purse, besides the buck and a quarter she was saving for next week’s Capital Transit pass.
It would be another week, at least, before she would get her first paycheck. Still, she counted herself lucky. In the worker pool, more than one woman had talked about the shame of borrowing money from her landlady. Even at lunch that day, one of the gals had looked about ready to steal her sandwich.
The L4 bus, a shorter trip home, soon arrived, but Dorothy didn’t manage to get on board. While she waited for the next bus, one eye on the crowd to make sure she wouldn’t get pushed back, she scanned the Evening Star‘s front page. An American Nazi sympathizer had dressed as a priest to dodge the draft; a German had been arrested for sending factory information to the Reich. And even after a year of war, those yokels in Congress still talked about Jews like her as if they were the enemy, not the Nazis. At least President Roosevelt understood that Jews were Americans, not like these German fifth columnists.
With her dander up, Dorothy got a little pushy when the L2 bus arrived. She found a seat near the front and on the aisle. She flipped through Life and decided she should have saved her money. The entire issue was about airplanes and war, including an article about those new WAACS. Women, in Army uniforms! Shirley would be scandalized, but it made Dorothy proud. Benny would like the pictures of airplanes, at least.
As the bus turned onto Columbia Road a light rain began. At the next stop, a man took the seat across the aisle from her. He wasn’t old, but he was severe-looking, with a thick forehead and a sharp nose under his hat. From his briefcase he took a drawing pad and a thick charcoal pastel. He began to sketch the bus interior, with a speed and precision that impressed Dorothy. Normally she wasn’t one to talk to strange men on buses, but she was feeling a little nervy.
“That’s very good,” she said. “Strong lines.”
The man started at her comment, but when he smiled he looked so happy as to seem goofy.
“You are very kind to say this,” he said. He had a thick Slavic accent, and spoke with a formal air. “It is only a – you say, hobby?”
“Yes, a hobby,” Dorothy said. “You’ve got a knack for it, though. Keep it up.”
“I will do so. Thank you. A ‘knack’ is a talent, yes? American English is quite different from the British. But I am learning,” he added. “Knack is my second new word today.”
“What was the other?” Dorothy asked.
“Lobby. You know what it means?”
“The front of a hotel?” Dorothy said, puzzled.
He raised a finger with a wave, as if he had scored a point in a game. “Yes. But it is also an activity. To lobby is to ask the government for something. It seems your President Grant liked to go to a certain hotel here, for cigars and whisky. So people seeking favors would wait –” he paused.
“In the lobby,” Dorothy said. “Oh, how charming. Is that what you do?”
“In my way,” he said. He straightened up so, Dorothy had the feeling he was about to stand and click his heels together. “I am Cyril Svoboda. attaché, Czecho-Slovak government-in-exile. At your service, my lady.”
“Why, thank you,” she said. “I’m Dorothy Sharpe. Enchanted.” She offered her hand across the aisle, half-expecting him to kiss it, but he gave it a sensible shake.
“And you, Miss Sharpe. Are you an artist?”
“I studied art,” she said. “But, with the war –” When she swore her government oath at the War Department, they had impressed on her the need to keep quiet about her work, lest a fifth-columnist hear. Dorothy was not a good liar, but she could shade the truth. “I work for a mapmaker.”
“Ah. Then I have you to thank for helping me learn this city, and its bus routes.”
“I didn’t work on the bus map, I’m afraid,” Dorothy said. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a diplomat before. Where is your embassy?”
“Like my country, in the hands of the Nazis.”
“Of course. I am so sorry.”
“The Allies will prevail. But since you ask, the government is in London now, with many soldiers in France. Most of my colleagues in America are in Chicago. I am part of a small section.”
“What do you do?”
He looked around as if to share a vital secret. “I go to parties.”
Dorothy giggled. “What parties?”
“Every night in Washington, is parties. The wealthy and powerful people entertain, the politicians come. All the governments go, England, France, even Russians.”
“That sounds like a pleasant assignment.”
“Less so when the Italians come,” Cyril said, frowning. “At least the Nazis have the grace not to attend. It is the way to meet people in power. We who are not soldiers still serve.”
“That’s right. That’s exactly right.” The bus was approaching Van Ness Street. Dorothy tucked the magazines in the middle of the paper, hoping they would be protected in case she had to use it as an umbrella.
“You live in this neighborhood?” Cyril asked. “Forest Hills, yes? And the Bureau of Standards.”
“You’ve heard of the Bureau of Standards?” Dorothy asked.
“I have read it on the maps. What is it for?”
“I really have no idea,” Dorothy said. “Just what brings you this far away from downtown?”
“Ah.” He leaned close and spoke conspiratorially. “I am on important mission for my superiors. Klobása.”
It took Dorothy a moment. “You mean, Polish sausage?”
“It is Czech sausage. But the good butcher here is Polish, yes.”
Dorothy smiled. “I wish you luck on your important mission. Goodbye, Mr. Svoboda.”The bus stopped in front of the Ice Palace. Dorothy made her way out. It was still drizzling but she wouldn’t melt.
As the bus drove away, she heard a deep voice calling her. The Czech fellow had followed her out. He walked toward her with a pronounced limp.
“Are you all right, Mr. Svoboda?” she said. “You seem to be in pain.”
The question took him aback. “Ah. My leg. A recent disagreement with a taxicab door. I will be fine. Miss Sharpe, would you go to a Washington party with me? It would be my pleasure to escort you.”
“I’m very flattered, Mr. Svoboda. I’m not so sure I’m the sort of person who you would take to such places.”
“I disagree. A beautiful woman is an excellent tool of statecraft.”
It was a backhanded flirt but Dorothy liked it. “Give me your sketchpad,” she said. Instead of his charcoal, he offered her an ornately tooled fountain pen. She wrote her sister’s number on his sketch, above the bus driver’s cap. “I live with my family,” she said. “So don’t be surprised if someone else picks up the phone.”
“I understand. I will call you once my leg is ready to dance. Good evening, Miss Dorothy Sharpe.”
“Good evening, Mr. Cyril Svoboda.”
This time he did kiss her hand, and it was a little bit thrilling. She walked toward home, hoping the breeze would cool her blush.
NEXT WEEK: An invitation to dinner.
© 2015 Anthony Dobranski