Sketches from fiction set in 1945

May 24, 2014

The only way to enter the small apartment was through the alley. The apartment was in back of an appliance store, and the alley, perennially damp, had a slate sidewalk fringed with moss and cracked concrete gutters. Sunlight rarely made an appearance; maybe a few pale shavings in the early morning or late afternoon, cast offs failing to warm, as if the weak light that reached the alley was an emasculated mockery of sun.

At the end of the slate alley stood a few concrete steps and an iron railing leading to a door—the only entrance—that fed into a tight foyer crammed with hunting jackets, fishing gear, hunting rifles, old Life and Look magazines, and mostly junk. A door on the left side of the entrance opened to the kitchen. A chrome legged table was to the left; a refrigerator, counter, cabinets and sink were on the right, and the stove was planted against the far wall. Two doors led out of the kitchen: the one straight out entered a small hallway with a bedroom at one end and a bathroom at the other. The second door, at the left side of the kitchen, led to an umber-toned living room that had two windows looking out on to the alley. Except for the kitchen and bathroom, all the other rooms looked dark and cavernous.

Douglas Marr sat at the kitchen table with a pen, some stationery, and the morning newspaper. He was trying to write a letter, but he didn’t care much for writing, he would rather have been drawing or painting, or fixing cars or motorcycle engines. He scanned the newspaper for stories about The War and there were still plenty of stories, which in turn helped Douglas to make up his own and write them down, with slight modifications, in his letter to Diane. Although he disliked reading almost as much as he disliked writing, Douglas had by now begun to read the entire paper every day, including the afternoon-evening edition. He even studied the advertisements, especially the classifieds, admitting to himself that he preferred the ads to straight news stories or opinion. In ads you could find something, get something; reading about places, or people, or events, or reading someone’s thoughts didn’t get you anything and made no sense to him at all. He had no real interest in words, but oddly, after finishing the newspaper, Douglas would linger on the puzzle page, attempting the crossword and jumble, and he was getting better at them. Douglas Marr was 18 and he had a lot of time on his hands.
He was writing to Diane Reynolds, age 12. Diane had been in the hospital for eight months with polio and was paralyzed in one leg. A bright, gifted child, she already wrote better letters than he did, her writing style was more intelligent and superior, and she was about age 15 or 16 intellectually.

Dear Diane:
How are you? I hope you’ll be leaving the hospital soon. It seems like you’ve been there forever. Has there been any news from the doctors on when they can let you go?

You’ve probably been wondering what’s happened to me. Well, I’m still here as in “alive.” I’m on my last leave, and it’s a short one of 72 hours. I’ve been reassigned to another of Patton’s Ranger divisions, and will be returning to ____________________ tomorrow. The Germans will probably surrender by late spring, that’s what everyone is saying anyway. After that, who knows? The Pacific and the Japanese? I hope to make it back from Europe at all. A lot of the guys in my unit are already gone—dead.

Douglas stared at the remaining space on the blue sheet of paper. His mother was at the counter pressing lemons. She used a large glass lemonade bowl with a fluted, inverted acorn-shaped knob in its center. The bowl was clear and painted with large red polka dots the size of quarters. His mother would press and turn the lemon halves, the juice and pulp sliding down in a bleed of citrus until the lemon halves were flattened skins, small hairless scalps. His mother would then add cold water and a few cups of sugar, and she’d never told him how so much sugar she’d managed to acquire or where it had come from (in a few years his mother would be a diabetic). The sugar made a rasping sound as it was stirred in with the water and lemon juice.

“Are you writing that girl again?” his mother asked him.

“Been trying to.”

“Don’t write lies to a 12-year-old girl, son. I think you should either stop lying to her, or stop writing her altogether.”

Douglas stared at his unfinished letter.

“But I can’t disappoint her. She thinks I’m a war hero. And if I tell her the truth, think of how betrayed she’ll feel. She might even turn me in.”

His mother turned from the sink and faced him, her hands clutching the edge of the counter. She wore a slip and some faded gray moccasins that may have once been white. Sections of her dry thinning brown hair were held in place with bobby pins, so that the top and sides of her head looked like a map of northern Europe with nations borders where the pale furrows of her scalp gleamed through. Her looks were stern but mostly tired. He saw her now in a way he had never seen her before: a bitter woman with two failed marriages, the second husband, his loathed step father, dead of cirrhosis, his own father simply abandoning her and lighting out for the territories by the time he’d reached the age of one, and his mother ultimately left to fend for herself with two sons and poverty, years of soul crushing work at the plant, her hours increased once the war had begun, and lines of weariness scored into a face that had become a mask of coping and sacrificing and making-do. She was hiding him, but he’d grown a burden to her, and she didn’t particularly care one way or the other if he was here or in Europe fighting the Germans. It didn’t feel right that he was still living here, but she had raised him after all, and she understood the consequences of his actions.

“Is that really what you’re afraid of?” she said, her tone slightly mocking. “You’re afraid that a young girl with polio, in a polio ward in the hospital, will report you to the G-Men? So you’d rather go on lying to her and pretending you’re a war hero than take that risk? Am I right?”

“Yes,” Douglas admitted, as he crumpled the letter, leaving the irregular sphere of paper on the table, matter transformed in a way that momentarily surprised him and traded relief of a smaller guilt for a larger, more pressing one.

“Yes, Mom,” he said. “You’re always right.”

*

His mother would serve him peanut butter and banana sandwiches for lunch, with some of the lemonade, and for dinner she would cook him a steak, but she would cook the steak before she left for work at the plant around 3:00. Douglas would then reheat the steak around 6:00, staring at the stove’s red Bakelite knobs. He would have the steak with some canned vegetables on the side, and drink a bottle of Piels or Rheingold. One time the heat had been shut off in the apartment, and he’d had to eat his dinner cold, which wasn’t too big a deal for him, because he’d eaten cold K-rations on the battlefield. After supper he usually drank a few more beers with a shot or two of whiskey. He was trying to get numb every evening, playing his radio, smoking and drinking, and listening to Sinatra until his mother came home from work. He would then kiss her goodnight and go to bed and tomorrow they’d repeat this same routine.

Douglas rarely spoke to his younger half brother Gil, or Gilbert. Gil was at school during the day and then he played with his friends after school. They didn’t eat together, and their mother left them separate dinners. He had small resentment toward Gil because Gil’s father had been a drunk and a son-of-a bitch. The only interaction Douglas had with his younger brother was corrupting him. Occasionally when Gil returned in the evening from being outdoors, and Douglas was listening to Sinatra and big band music on the radio, he would offer Gil a few sips of beer and a cigarette, laughing with cruel amusement as he watched his kid brother turn pale and dizzy exploring adult vices.

“See, it’s bad for you. Don’t ever start.”

“I’m going to tell Mom you gave me booze and cigs.”

“I wouldn’t do that if you want to keep your nose on the front of your head.”

Gilbert would sometimes ask Douglas about the war and soldiering, but Douglas wouldn’t talk about it.

*

There were G-men out there though, and they would find him. It was just a matter of time.

Through the blinds of his window in back of the apartment, he would watch an eight-year-old kid playing in the yard next door. Douglas envied the kid, 10-years-younger than him, envied that the kid was young enough to have missed the draft, missed the war, to have missed his cousin and best friend being killed and so many brothers of his outfit blown up, maimed or dead. The kid, lost in his world of play and fantasy, was largely oblivious to the war, or knew vaguely that a war was going on, but would never feel directly affected by it—its truth about life and death and shattered dreams—the way Douglas and the rest of his generation had been affected . . . the kid always played in the back yard by himself, on a square of grass-less ground with a Hickory tree and a few dirt-encrusted toys. The kid didn’t seem to have a father or siblings, and should have been in school. Douglas didn’t know the mother. The mother mostly stayed in the front apartment and drank during the afternoon. She rarely went out, not even to buy groceries, and her blinds and shades were always drawn as same as the windows of his own apartment.

The Sheldon’s lived upstairs (Stu and Hazel) and the Hamm’s lived on the other side, also behind the appliance store. Neither couple had children living with them, which in Douglas’s situation was a good thing—kids were little spies. The Sheldon’s kids were grown and living somewhere else on their own, and the Hamm’s never had kids to begin with. The Casey’s had several kids. They lived across the street next to a candy store and soda fountain, which was next to a barber shop, and the barber shop was next to the butcher’s. A hopscotch game was scrawled in chalk in front of the Casey’s house, and Douglas knew the game was there without actually having seen it in a long time, because the game seemed to have always been there, even when he was a boy. No one knew that he was hiding in this small room that faced the back of the alley with the mossy slates and the small adjacent yard where the kid played by himself. Would anyone turn him in? Maybe not, if the War was supposed to end in a few months. . . His mother shopped and bought him groceries and beer a few times a week. She tried not to be overly conspicuous in her purchases and didn’t buy from the same grocery or liquor store twice in a row.

*

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