Bill Mesce

Bill Mesce

FURLOUGH, NOVEMBER 1944                                      

At the sight of his uniform, the woman’s eyes had gone wide and she began to waver on her legs.  For a moment, Reitz thought she might collapse against the door, closing it in his face.  He reached out with his good hand and took her under the elbow.

“It’s all right, Mrs. DiFeo.  Nothing’s wrong.”

She didn’t hear.  Or didn’t believe.  He slipped through the partly open door, supporting her as best he could.

“Mom?  What’s the matter, Mom?  Is she alright?”

Quick glance into the other room; two girls – (what had Tommy told him?  Twelve and fourteen?) – in their Sunday best, coats on, broad-brimmed hats of white straw, two sets of dark eyes turned sharply on him.  The older one:  afraid.  For her mother.  Of this stranger.  That would be Sylvia.  Little Sylvie.

But the younger one.  No fear.  The little kewpie doll face strangely hard, angry.  “What did you do to my mom?”  That would be Concetta.  Connie.  Coco, Tommy called her.

“Would you get your mom a glass of water, please?” Reitz asked.  Connie went to the sink, not taking suspicious eyes off him.

The entry door opened onto a cramped, eat-in kitchen.  He lowered the woman into a chair and smiled as disarming as he could.  “Mrs. DiFeo – Eve — everything is fine.  Your husband – Tommy  — he just wanted me to come by.  He wanted me to bring you a letter.”

“A letter?”

“Nothing bad.  No bad news, I promise.  Tommy thought since I had to pass through, I could carry a letter home for him.  That’s all.”

“He’s all right?”

“He complains about his back, his stomach, his feet, but yes, Tommy’s perfectly fine.”

Finally, a weak smile from her.

“Look…”  He fumbled his one good hand inside his coat and uniform jacket and came out with an envelope.

The sense of relief overwhelmed her.  Tears began to well up.  She turned away, wiping at her eyes with her white-gloved hands.  “I’m so sorry.  This is embarrassing.”

“No, it’s not,” Reitz soothed.

Then, suddenly, turning back with concern for him.  “Are you all right?”  She pointed to his left arm in its sling in a white cast.

“It only hurts when I salute.”  He burlesqued bringing up the encased arm and crashing it into his forehead.

She chuckled.

“I thought a salute was with the right arm,” Connie said coolly.

The woman gave a quick, reproving glare to her daughter.  “Girls, this is a friend of Daddy’s.  You are a friend of Tommy’s, aren’t you?”

Reitz nodded.  “Alvin Reitz, Mrs. DiFeo.  Tommy and I shared a room in Rome.”  He thought of a better recommendation and pulled back the sling so she could read the writing awkwardly scrawled across the face of the cast:

I’LL BET YOU DID IT ON PURPOSE!

XOX TOMMY XOX

She laughed, more than she should have, but it was as much in catharsis as amusement.  She stood.  “Do you mind?  I have to put myself back together.”

“I should go — ”

“No, please.”

“You look like you were getting ready to go out.”

“We were going to mass.”

“Mass?”

“Yes.”

“Church,” Connie said as if speaking to a child.

Reitz shook his head.

“What’s the matter?” the woman asked.

“I’ve been traveling for something like three weeks.  I didn’t know what day it was; that this was a Sunday.  I really should leave — ”

“Please,” she said and waved at him to stay in his chair.  “I’ll just be a minute.  There’s coffee on the stove.  It’s still hot.  Girls, show Mr. — ”

“Lieutenant,” Connie said, noting the gold bars on his shoulder straps.  “That’s right, isn’t it?  Lieutenant?”  But she knew.

“Yes,” Reitz said.  “Lieutenant Reitz.  Alvin.”

The woman retreated behind a curtain to a bedroom.  He could hear her sniffle, then the clatter of cosmetic jars.  The noise made him smile.  It reminded him of his own wife.

Little Sylvie set a cup and saucer down in front of him, along with a sharply ironed linen napkin.  She toted the pot over from the stove and poured.  “Would you like milk?  Sugar?  We don’t have much sugar — ”

“This is fine, black is fine.  You’re Little Sylvie.  That’s what your dad calls you.”

“He told you about me?”  She tilted her head coyly, already the practiced coquette at fourteen.

“He told me about all of you.  He misses you a lot.”

“What’d he say about me?”  This from a leery Connie.

“What did he tell me about Coco?”

She flushed at his use of the name.

“I think the word he used most often was, ‘buster.’  ‘Little Sylvie is a sweetie,’ he’d say, ‘but Coco – she’s a buster!’”

For the first time, Connie softened a bit, proud of her reputation.

“And even though you’re a buster, he still misses you.”

She turned away, not wanting him to see her face.  Behind him, a doorway led to the parlor.  He stood, and as he passed Connie, he patted her gently on the shoulder.  She surprised him by not flinching away.

The shotgun apartment had four, small, square rooms, but the woman had made a liar of the drab face the tenement had presented to the street.  She kept the rooms bright, clean, comfortable.  There was some odd-looking creature of papier mache sitting atop the cathedral radio, something obviously made by one of the kids.  Reitz had to look closely to tell it was supposed to be a turkey.

“Which one of you made this?”

Little Sylvie, playing at modestly rather transparently, raised her hand.

“It’s very good!” Reitz said.

Connie rolled her eyes.  “I couldn’t even tell it was a bird when she brought it home.”

“I couldn’t tell you were human when mom and dad brought you home!” was Little Sylvie’s retort.

Connie wrinkled her nose, unimpressed at the attempted wit.

“Is this where your father worked?”  Reitz crossed to a desk beneath several sagging bookshelves wedged in a corner by a window looking out on an airshaft.  An Underwood typewriter sat covered in the exact middle of the desk.  The desk was clean and ready, as if its user was expected momentarily.

“That’s where he wrote his books!” Sylvie said proudly.

“We were always getting chased out,” Connie said.

“Not always,” her sister said.

The fingers of Reitz’ good hand slowly moved along the leather-bound volumes:  Gibbons, Wells, Plutarch, Voltaire.  He looked out the window.  The airshaft echoed with a scratchy phonograph recording of Caruso’s bell-like tenor, competing with a radio tuned to Harry James.  A child laughed, another cried, an elderly women gibbered angrily in Italian.  He looked down at the desk, again, admiringly, brought his fingers close to the typewriter keys, couldn’t bring himself to actually touch them.

“I don’t see any of your father’s books.”

“Mom keeps those in her room,” Little Sylvie said.

Not too far off, he could hear church bells begin to chime.

“‘Go in your room and be quiet!’”  This from Connie.  “‘Daddy has to work tonight.’  How can you be quiet?  We’re just in the next room!  If you breathed mom’d come in to hush us!”

“She exaggerates,” Sylvie said.

Connie responded by blowing a raspberry.

“And she’s rude.”

“A buster,” Reitz concluded.

“A-men!” Sylvie said.

The woman was standing in the kitchen doorway.  She was just a few years younger than her husband which put her in her late thirties, pleasant-faced more than pretty.  She had a soft, pillowy face, was a bit thick about the middle.  Like her husband.  For a moment, Reitz could picture Tommy DiFeo and his wife walking away side by side:  two peas in a pod.

Again, he thought of his own wife and felt a pang.

“Tommy says I should be extra nice to you,” Eve DiFeo said.  “For bringing me this.”  She held up the sheets of paper from the envelope.

“You read it already?”

“Just the beginning.”

“Well, you have been extra nice.  You and your daughters.”

The woman looked skeptically at her daughters.

Reitz pointed off in the direction of the tolling bells.  “I should let you get on to church.”

“I wish you’d — .”  She stopped, considered a moment.  “Would you like to come to mass with us?”

“I’m not Catholic.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“Only if it’s all right with the ladies.” He turned a beseeching look on the girls.

“Let him sit next to Sylvie,” Connie said with a nasty curl to her lips.  “She’s the one who’s all moonie over him!”

“Shut—up!” her older sister barked, punctuating the command with a punch to her sister’s arm.

“Does that mean it’s alright?” Alvin Reitz asked.

Eve DiFeo’s head wagged with motherly exasperation.  “Close enough.”

“I’m sorry.  Did I wake you?”

“Oh, no.  Was I dozing off?”  Reitz pulled himself upright on the bench, rubbed his eyes with his good hand.  “Boy, oh, boy…”  He shook his head, surprised at himself.

“You said you’d been traveling,” the woman said.  “You must be tired.  I should’ve let you sleep.”

Reitz smiled.  “It’s not that.  Believe me.”  His eyes flicked to the achingly blue sky with just enough cotton puff clouds to make it a perfect picture.  “It’s just such…well, this day…”

On the south side of Clifton Avenue stood the narrow, drab stone and brick tenements of Newark’s North Ward, their faces crisscrossed with rusting fire escapes, and zebra-striped with grime and coal soot.  Just a little further along was the Municipal Bathhouse, an oppressive pile of brick that seemed to have been designed by the same sensibility that had designed Rahway Prison.

But the rambling miles of Branch Brook Park began on the north side of Clifton Avenue, and with the park benches faced away from the street, Reitz could easily forget – especially on just such a day — the tenements and bathhouse and the North Ward and the city beyond.

The sun was bright and warm enough to take the edge off the November chill, giving the air a clean, bracing taste.  The barren trees of the park, and the brittle fallen leaves that carpeted the playground were imbued with a warm, amber glow.  Children laughed and called out, scampered back and forth across the swings and jungle gym, skipping through the wind-piled mounds of leaves like a pack of monkeys.  At the bocce courts on the far side of the playground, grave-faced, walnut-hided old Italian men sent wooden balls caroming off each other with quiet clicks.

What made that all such a lullaby was more than ignoring the gritty city behind them.  It was something Reitz would not share with the woman which was this:  The better part of his three weeks of traveling had been spent on a Liberty ship, part of a westbound OB convoy crossing the North Atlantic.  Above decks had been sheathed in ice and whipped by Arctic winter gales which meant that Reitz and a few hundred other men – most of them injured as well — spent the trip cooped up below decks where the odor of fuel oil and men’s bodies battled with the smell of vomit.  When Reitz thought back to that voyage, the only picture that came to mind was him on his knees on the rolling deck with his head in a fire bucket.

That now felt a thousand years ago, and, instead, here was this brilliant, brilliant day.  It had not taken long sitting on a bench next to Eve DiFeo, a loving sun and clean air on his face, for Reitz to begin slumping on the bench, his head beginning to drop forward.

“Mr. Reitz!  Push me!”  Little Sylvie was on a swing, kicking her feet anxiously.  “Please, Mr. Reitz!”

“It’s lieutenant!” Connie corrected from her perch atop the jungle gym.  “And how’s he gonna push you with a busted arm?”

“Why don’t you two push each other?” their mother suggested.  “Take turns.”

“She can push herself,” Connie snapped.  Then she said something directed toward her sister Reitz couldn’t quite hear.  The only words he picked out were, “lovey-dovey,” which – along with whatever else Connie had said – stung Sylvie like a tack on her swing seat.  She vaulted to her feet and scrambled up the jungle gym with homicidal intent rage on her face.

“Be nice!” Eve DiFeo commanded.  “Be-have!”  “They really do love each other,” she said to Reitz.  “Really.”

“I’m sure.”

“I keep telling myself that, anyway.  Do you have children?”

“Two boys and a girl.  I’ve never seen the baby; she was born a month after my last leave.”

“When was that?  When you were home?”

“Last year.  October.”

A look on her face, like a silent, sympathetic sigh.  “Have another?”  She held out the small white box containing several dolci – Italian sweet pastry she had bought at a pasticerria on their way to the park.

“Thank you, no.”

“Just before the war, Tommy and I had been looking for a house,” she said.  “Over in Bloomfield.  That’s not far from her, just a few miles.  All we’d have to do is hop the streetcar to come back and see our people.  It’s very nice there.  No walk-ups, no people piled on top of each other.  Wide streets with trees.  There’s a green in the center of town and a band plays music there in the summer.  Tommy had made enough money off his last book…not much, but enough for a down payment.  But when I thought about moving…”  She nodded at her daughters, Connie still teasing, Sylvie still giving chase (“I’m gonna kill you, I swear!”).  “Sometimes I think I’d miss this.”

“What makes you think it’d be different there?”

She shrugged.  “None of my people has ever had a house.  Tommy’s, either.  But it is nice there.  I work out there now, in Bloomfield.  GE has a factory there that makes parts for gun turrets on bombers.”

“Rosie the Riveter.”

She smiled self-consciously.  “I’m making enough now that between that and Tommy’s book money, and his allotment, I could probably get a house on my own.  Only there’s no houses anywhere these days.  Even if I could find one…”  She bowed her head.  “I wouldn’t want to do it until Tommy came home.  He should come back to a house he knows.”

She brought her face back up and Reitz was struck by the way the sun brought its warm glow to her round cheeks.

She peeked under the cover of the pastry box, almost convinced herself to close it, then quickly reached in with two gloved fingers and pinched off a piece of golden sponge cake.

Reitz smiled, turned back to his view of the park.  Children.  Mothers and grandmothers.  The only men were old men.  For a moment, a shadow of melancholia passed over his heart.

“Are you a historian like Tommy?”

“Not exactly.  I’m — …”  He winced internally at the presumptuousness of the word, “artist.”  “I make pictures.  Mostly, I draw.  I paint when there’s time.”

“You make pictures?”

“Before Normandy, the Army had me painting watercolors of the landing beaches, the way they’d look to the coxswains that would be steering the landing craft.  They’d study them so they’d know what the shore was going to look like when they went in.”

“What do they have you doing now?”

“Now they just want me to draw what I see.  And paint.  For historical purposes.”

“A soldier artist!” she marveled.

“Something like that.  They have a lot of people in the field, the Army, doing what I do.  People who paint and draw, photographers, guys with 16 mm movie cameras, writers — ”

“Like Tommy.”

“Yes.”

“Why?  What’s it all for?”

Reitz shrugged.  “Posterity.  Maybe they think they’ll learn something.”

“Will they?”

“I doubt it.”

She pinched off another piece of golden cake.  “I wish you’d take some of this before I eat it all myself.”

He did.

“What did you do before the war?” she asked.  “Draw?”

With some self-conscious throat-clearing he said, “I was in advertising.  Pieces for magazines, newspapers.”

“Something I might have seen?”

“I’m afraid so.  ‘Smart men brace up with The Bracer!  With Lastex yarn!’”

“‘The Bracer?’”

“It was kind of a men’s girdle.  Only you couldn’t call it a girdle if you wanted men to buy it.”

“And now you’re drawing — ”

“Not too much.”  He wiggled the fingertips extending from the end of the cast.

“Will you be able to…?”

“The doctors say it’ll be ok.  We’ll see.”

She smiled mischievously.  “Tommy said for me to ask you how it happened.  He told me not to believe the first thing you said because that would probably be a lie.”

“It would’ve been.”

“So?”

He fidgeted.  “You don’t want to hear this.”

“Tommy seems to think I would.”

“Now I know where Connie gets it.  Your husband’s a buster, too.”

“Well?”

“It’s stupid.”

“That’s the impression he gave.”

Reitz took a deep breath, couldn’t help smiling himself.  “I slipped on a puddle of pee in the latrine getting off the toilet.”

Her gloved hand came up to cover her mouth but it didn’t do much to quiet her laugh.  “Do they give you a Purple Heart for that?”

“It’s a new award, just for me:  the Black-and-Blue Buttock.”

She no longer bothered to cover her mouth.

He thought her laugh – any woman’s laugh – a beautiful, beautiful thing to hear, a sound that made the day complete.

Sylvie and Connie walked ahead of them as they headed back to their walk-up.  Reitz could understand Eve DiFeo’s desire to leave the neighborhood:  the cramped, century-old, shoulder-to-shoulder tenements with a half-dozen families on each floor sharing a single hallway toilet; children dodging cars on the bricktop streets that served as their front yard.  And yet, he could see her desire to stay, as well:  she seemed to know everyone she passed by name, shopkeep and neighbor, child and adult, and they all knew her name, and asked with sincere care if there’d been any new word from her husband.

They stopped at the stoop of her building.  Reitz gave the girls a nickel each to buy candied apples from the fruit store a few doors down.

“Is it like this where you’re from?” Eve DiFeo asked.

“We were in Chicago until I got drafted.  Then when I shipped out, Jill went home to be close to her folks.  Lincoln City, Indiana.  It’s about forty miles from Evansville.”  He might just as well have told her he was from one of the moons of Jupiter.  “It’s a lot smaller.  I think I passed more people between here and the park then there are in the whole town.”

She laughed.  “Where are they sending you?”

“Atlantic City.  They tell me that a lot of the hotels have been converted to hospitals.  As soon as my arm’s better, they want me to stay on there and — ”

“Make pictures.”

He nodded.

“Mrs. D’Alaqua – she’s one of the ladies in my building – she has a son down there.”  Her face clouded.  “She’s been down to see him.  He lost a leg at Anzio.”

“I’m sorry.”

“She says that’s mostly what they have down there.  Boys who’ve lost legs.  Arms.  Boys who are paralyzed.  Boys who’ve been burned.  Sometimes…”  She frowned.  “Sometimes I think they keep them down there so they’re out of sight.”  She faced him.  “Tommy says he’s being transferred.”

“Yes.”

“He says he can’t say where exactly he’s going.  Just that it’s up on the Continent.  Some unit that used to be from New Jersey, he says.”

“It used to be a National Guard outfit,” Reitz said.  “It makes a kind of Army sense.  They think that since the unit used to be based in New Jersey, and that Tommy’s from Jersey…”

“That doesn’t make sense to you?”

“They’ve been in action since late June.  By now, I doubt there’s any more men from Jersey in that outfit than there are in any other outfit.”

Now it was her turn for a shadow to pass over her heart.

He looked to lighten the moment.  “Is the story true, the one Tommy told me about what happened after he enlisted?  When they went to classify him?”

The shadow passed, the glowing cheeks again pulled up in a smile as she nodded.  “A doctorate in history, three published books, and this sergeant told him, ‘If you can write books, you must be able to type,’ and they sent him to clerical school.”

“See what I mean about the Army?”

They both laughed.

Reitz looked at his watch.  “I have to be going.  I have a train.”

“Is Tommy safe?  I mean, where he’s going?”

Reitz smiled comfortingly.  “With all respect, Eve, Tommy is no soldier.  He sits with men behind the lines, asks them questions, they tell him their stories.  Usually, he’s so far from the front that even if they were pounding away at each other with Big Berthas, he wouldn’t hear it.  He’ll be fine.”

“Thank you for coming by, Lieutenant.  Tommy calls you, ‘Al,’ right?”

“Al.”

“Well, Al, do you think you’ll be able to get yourself free and get back to — .  Where was it?  In Indiana?”

“Lincoln City.  No, it looks like it’ll be a while before I can get a long enough leave to make the trip.  And with the kids, travel the way it is, there’s no way it looks like she’ll be able to come down.”

“I’m sorry.  That’s a shame.”  A moment of thought.  “Atlantic City’s not far by train.  If you ever have a weekend leave and want a home-cooked meal…”

“That’s very sweet of you, Eve.  Thank you.”

“Girls, come over here and say goodbye to the lieutenant!”

Sylvie held out her little gloved hand and Reitz bowed in a gentlemanly fashion which seemed to thrill the girl no end.  Then he turned to Connie and dropped to one knee.

“Coco, I was telling your mother that just after I went away, my wife had a baby girl.  When she grows up, I hope she’s just like you.  She may give me nothing but headaches, but I’ll never have to worry about whether or not she can take care of herself.”

She tried not to smile but couldn’t quite hide it.  Slowly, her hand came up.

There was no conscious thought of it:  he didn’t even remember doing it.  He suddenly found himself holding the girl to him in as much of a hug as he could manage with his one good arm.  She did not fight him.  He felt the small, dear body against him and his eyes began to sting.  He pushed himself away, put a fingertip to his eyes to clear them.  “I’m sorry.”  To no one in particular; to all of them.

“Do you have to be in Atlantic City by a certain time?” Eve DiFeo asked.  “Would you girls mind if the lieutenant stayed for dinner?  We eat early on Sunday,” she explained to Reitz.  “You could still catch an evening train and be there by tonight.”

“Only if it’s ok with the ladies.”                                                                          

Little Sylvie smiled, and Connie took his hand as if she thought it was a chore.  “Come on,” she grumped and led him up the stairs and through the front doors.

 

Bill Mesce, Jr. teaches screenwriting at the University of Maine at Farmington, and is an occasional writer.  He was primarily raised in one of the Italian neighborhoods of Newark.  Like most Newark Italians, his grandparents immigrated from the Catania region of Italy.

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