by Anthony Dobranski
It’s not all work and no play for 1942 government gal Dorothy Sharpe. Read more about her in chapters 2 and 6 – you’ll find those and all the chapters here!
Dorothy joined her team Friday morning in a great hallway in the Munitions Building, en route to a new packing job in another large storeroom. A supervisor had given them directions but hadn’t come along.
That evening was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The holiday would be their first formal dinner as a family since Dorothy’s arrival, and Leo’s mother was coming to stay the weekend. Shirley really needed Dorothy to leave work early to shop and help. Over the course of the morning Dorothy made periodic tours up and down the hall, looking for someone in charge, but there was no one to ask if she could leave.
Shirley had made a contingency plan. When lunchtime came, Dorothy offered around a paper bag of Shirley’s banana drop cookies, a creamy sweet smell mingling with the scents of paper-acid and dust.
The gals ate the cookies as quickly as they could with any decorum, and some ate quicker.
While she had them all together, Dorothy explained her problem.
“I don’t mean to ask for favors,” Dorothy said. “But tonight’s dinner is a family event, and my sister can’t do it all. If I could clock out early today, I’ll cover for the next couple of you who need a little extra time.”
To her relief, some heads nodded. If they had all thought she was a goldbrick, Dorothy would have just died.
“You think our team will stay together?” Jean asked. She was a small blond with a long pale face. “We’re already half done with the packing.”
“Maybe there’s other rooms.” Agnes had thick red hair that spread wide like an elm tree. “What’s your family in town for?”
“I think it was when she could get a ticket,” Dorothy said. “And not so hot as August.” It was easier than trying to explain Rosh Hashanah. Mention something Jewish, sometimes even sweet people got sour.
She left at two, entrusting to Agnes the last two cookies in case a supervisor did come around. She walked out with high shoulders, donning her tortoise-shell sunglasses against an overcast sky. She hoped to look important and to hide the fact she was blushing with displeasure. She had pushed at the Annex to get real work, and now on her third day she was leaving early. She was no shirker. Just, some things were hard to juggle.
On 18th Street, she caught the L4 bus, the faster route and only half-full. She felt strangely free to look all around, without the circumspection she felt in a crowded bus. She leaned across the bench, back to the window, reading the colorful ads. Doctors liked Camel and Lucky Strike cigarettes, but actor Alan Ladd liked Chesterfields.
Dorothy missed smoking, but after a few days without, her urges had cooled. She wondered if that Czech fellow smoked. She imagined a silver holder, fancy black cigarettes with crests in gold. Or maybe not. Cyril was debonair but he also seemed a little hard up.
In a war bonds ad, the shadow of a swastika fell on American children.
It chilled her but also angered her. Everyone Dorothy knew had heard the Nazis were creating mass execution sites to kill Jews, just for being Jews, all over Poland. The stories were too horrible to ignore. But there was nothing in the papers about it, no mention in newsreels or radio broadcasts. Thousands killed each month for no crime or battle, children destroyed by burning Nazi hatred, but no one in America talked openly about it. Did they want it to come here? She wondered if her new colleagues knew about it. Maybe she’d ask.
In the light afternoon traffic she was back to Forest Hills at two-thirty. The hubbub of Connecticut Avenue raised her spirits: stores and restaurants and the big busy Bureau. She was really becoming a city gal.
She called Shirley from the pay phone by the Hot Shoppes.
“So the cookies worked?” Shirley said. She sounded tired. “Well, something did at least.”
“How’s Mamma Rachel?”
“Settled in and very helpful,” Shirley said. “She’s cleaning the platters for me. Did you get the sugar?”
“No grocers on Constitution Avenue,” Dorothy said.
“Oh don’t be smart. I hope your pound is enough. I was so pleased when Eleanor Sanders invited me to the canning party that I forgot to ask. I’ve never been to a canning party.”
“I thought they were canning vegetables.”
“I don’t know what they do. But I’m going to have to contribute something.”
“You’re cooking for them. That’s a contribution.”
“Just get as much as they will let you,” Shirley said. “Can you stop at Woolworth’s and get a couple of grease pencils? I’ll need to mark the jars. Thank you!”
Shirley hung up. Dorothy’s nickel fell into the cashbox with a clang.
Across the street, near the Ice Palace, the local Woolworth’s had few shoppers. Dorothy didn’t have a head for the place yet. She wandered among the low square islands of this week’s sales, distracted by the bargain prices though they were outside her current budget. When she finally found the pencils on the taller racks in the back, she also found Corporal Enos Olsen.
“You’re looking well, Corporal,” she said. In the light of day he looked like a soldier from an ad, pale and angular, shoulders broad as a telephone pole. “Your cut’s almost healed.”
“Miss Sharpe.” He offered a handshake. “Please call me Enos. Thanks again for – the other night.”
“All right, Enos. Call me Dorothy. Oh, it was swell of you to come by. It really stirred up the party.” They both laughed. “What brings you here?”
Enos looked sore. “The Bureau scientists want to do a big chart for a lecture in the lab. Didn’t have any butcher paper in the office. But the real reason they sent me to get it is because I dropped a box of vacuum tubes today, and they ain’t so easy to find these days. So I’m in the doghouse.”
“Oh dear. At least it’s Friday. They can forget over the weekend.” They joined the cash register line. “Hot night tonight?” she asked.
He shook his head. “It’s cloudy, so no stargazing, and my pals didn’t get leave. I’ll probably just go home and listen to the shortwave.”
“Stargazing? Is that what you were doing out last week? Where do you go? Down in that little park here?”
“Soapstone? That’s got too many trees. I hike up into Rock Creek Park. It’s about a two-mile hike.”
“You just sit in a field and look at stars?”
“Not just the stars,” he said. “You see space. You have dimension, a sense of distance. It’s all moving around and we’re moving too and everywhere we look there are just – marvels. I’ve seen Jupiter’s moons. Orion’s nebulas will be back next month.”
“Now you make me want to come out. I’m not usually the hiking sort.”
“It’s just two miles. May I buy you a coffee?” He nodded up the street to the Hot Shoppes.
His invitation completely surprised her. “Oh, dear! I mean, oh yes I’d love to. Any other time I would, really. I have to go buy sugar and get home.”
“Are you out of sugar?” he asked.
“I know, it sounds awful. It’s just that this weekend, we’re having company, and all that sugar’s been used for baking. Now Shirley has this canning to do. I have to at least get mine for this week or Shirley will have a conniption.”
“Would you like my coupon?” Enos asked, so simply that she almost missed it.
“What an extraordinary – I didn’t mean to ask -”
“No, please. It’s about to expire and I really don’t need it.” He opened his billfold and handed her his ration card.
“I’ll just get the card from you – well, sometime. Least I can do for my battlefield nurse.”
“You’re – this is silly. You’re not Jewish, are you?”
“No. I’m Mormon.”
“Oh! That explains it. You seem an odd duck. I’m sorry, that’s – I don’t know, the things I say.”
To her relief, the corporal smiled. “It’s fine. Back home I’m like everybody. I suppose people here feel that way too. With the war, people from everywhere are all meeting. I think it’s good. Folks I thought were strange at first, they’re just folks.”
“So you’re – all right with Jews?”
“Golly, why not? There are Jews in my town. Couple fellows I met in Basic. And you all, the other night, you were so nice. Or, if you meant in matters of the spirit? Mormons descend from a tribe of Israel. We feel Jews are closest to divine revelation. The Old Testament, the prophets, we study those for guidance.”
Dorothy had never heard anyone speak so casually about revelation, or put Jews at the top of any list. Instead of feeling anxious, now she felt exactly right.
“Enos, tonight is Rosh Hashanah,” she said. “The Jewish New Year. It’s like Thanksgiving. We’re having a family dinner, and – would you like to come? Tonight, say six o’clock?”
“Thank you. It’s very kind. Can I bring something?”
“We have a lot, plus your sugar. If you can find them, Shirley would appreciate flowers.”
He tore a piece off the butcher paper and wrote down her address with a half-used pencil. No hand-kisses, but that was fine. She and Corporal Olsen would be friends.
Shirley would not be happy. A goy at a family religious dinner, and another mouth to feed. But he had given them sugar, and taking in strays was a good deed. It couldn’t hurt to start the New Year with one of those.
NEXT WEEK: A clue in the oddest place!
© 2015 Anthony Dobranski