The man stood in the shadow of shade trees near the playground, the collar of his dark pea coat turned up and encircling his head, his hands thrust deep into the coat’s pockets. From the park bench where she sat on the opposite side of the playground, Martha couldn’t make out the man’s features. She divided her attention between the man and the children on swings and slides, and though he made no threatening move toward them, his presence, nevertheless, made her feel anxious.
A sudden breeze ruffled the Washington Post in her hands. She carefully folded the newspaper back into shape and reread the article’s headline a third time: “U.S. BOMBERS BLAST TOKYO.” She quartered the paper and wedged it between her weathered, paper lunch sack and the wooden bench. Another breeze chilled her. She turned up her own coat collar and squeezed the worn material together where the buttons were missing. Still, she trembled.
The sound of children laughing brought her attention back to the playground. The nip of mid-spring air didn’t seem to affect them; they just carried on with the business of play. She smiled when she caught sight of Annie, all pigtails and freckles, legs pumping hard as the girl swung higher and higher. Her 7-year-old daughter was the only good thing that had come from Martha’s failed marriage. She was the only good thing Martha had taken from that small coal-mining town in southern Illinois to the bustling streets of war-focused Washington, D.C. Annie, laughing and swinging, was the only good thing in her life.
Her decision to send Annie away leeched all joy from her life and hollowed out her soul the way rot eats the inside of a dead tree.
A pair of motorcycles sputtered side by side down the street, followed closely by two army-green sedans, bumper flags flapping in the wind. Not long after, another army-green sedan, this one with a white, five-point star painted on the front door, raced past in the opposite direction. And then another. The flow of military traffic hardly let up, though a civilian car or truck occasionally ambled by as if to remind the city there was more going on than a world war.
Martha glanced at the shade trees. The man in the pea coat was no longer there.
Another breeze nudged the dry bristles of her hair and brought with it an aroma of warm bread from the bakery across the street. Martha’s bare lips pursed into a hopeful smile. What a treat for Annie if Martha could bring home fresh bread. She reached into her handbag and thumbed open a thread-bare change purse. She needed eight cents. She counted the coins one by one. Five, six, seven cents. Her smile dwindled away. She counted again. Seven cents. After dolling out the meager salary she earned as a War Office typist to pay the rent on her tiny, two-room apartment, she had only seven cents left. Gingerly, she poured the coins back into her change purse and dropped the purse back into her handbag.
An ache developed in her throat as the despair she battled every day took hold. Thirty-four years old. Divorced. Hundreds of miles from her family. Unable, even, to buy a loaf of bread for her child. She pulled an envelope from her handbag and withdrew from it a crisply folded letter. She had agonized over every word and felt a little piece of her dissolve as she wrote each one. Annie would be cared for, back home. Martha knew that. She knew that in her head. But, in her heart …
She eased the letter back into the envelope and returned it to her handbag. She looked around until she had eyes on Annie again, wanting, needing to renew her heart. Yes, there she was. On the slide —
Martha stiffened and went pale.
The man in the dark pea coat, hands still stuffed into his coat pockets, now sat on a bench behind the playground watching the children. Watching Annie. Martha caught her breath. The man’s features were obscured by shadow, but it was the same man. She knew it.
She gripped her hands in her lap and scanned the park, hoping to see a policeman or a serviceman. At any given moment, the D.C. sidewalks would be teeming with cops or soldiers and sailors; the streets packed with staff cars. But now, the streets were nearly empty, the sidewalks deserted.
The man’s head shifted until he faced Martha across the playground. She brought her hand to her mouth. The man stood. He pulled his hands from his pockets; one hand held something dark. He started walking, circling the playground.
She couldn’t move. She trembled now, but not from the cold. Her lungs struggled for breath as the man slowly approached. Her heart was a runaway kettle drum, the booms of it occluding the playground laughter. Her field of vision constricted until it seemed she was looking through a dark, narrow tube and the only thing she could see was her Annie.
He stopped behind her bench.
She stopped breathing.
“Is that your little girl?”
Martha expected a gruff, menacing voice. Dark. Vicious. Instead, the voice she heard was gentle and young. The contrast startled her into normal breath. Her vision widened. She lowered her hand and eased her head around to look at him.
He couldn’t have been more than 18 years old. Tall and lean, his round face acne-scarred, his eyes blue and moist. He wore his hair close to his skull in a fresh, military cut. His pea coat covered dark-colored bell-bottom uniform trousers. One hand gripped a dark, wool “Cracker Jack” flat cap with U.S. NAVY embroidered across the band.
“I … I didn’t mean to scare you,” the boy said.
She had been scared. But now that she’d seen him and heard him, the fear dissipated. “It’s all right,” she said.
“She’s beautiful,” he said.
Martha looked to Annie and felt her heart swell again. “Yes, she certainly is.”
“Ma’am, would you mind if I sat here for a spell? I won’t be a bother.”
A tendril of apprehension made Martha pause. The boy noticed and squeezed his flat cap in both hands.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said, stepping away. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”
The break in his voice and its anguish softened her. “No, wait. Of course, you may sit.” She picked up her lunch bag and newspaper, making a space for him on the bench.
“Thank you, ma’am.” He angled around the bench and sat stiffly on the edge of it. He glanced at the paper. “They say we dropped some bombs on Tokyo,” he said.
“Yes. The stories are still sketchy. Some say our bombers flew out of China, but I’m not so sure.”
“Really? I hadn’t heard that. It’s good that we did it, though. After Pearl, we needed something.”
They sat quietly for a time, watching the children and listening to the harsh city sounds. After a while, Martha glanced at the boy and saw his cheeks were shiny and wet. “Are you all right?” she asked.
He sniffed and wiped his cap across his face. “Lou Gehrig died last year. Did you know that?”
Puzzled, Martha said, “Yes. Is that what’s troubling you?”
As if a hydrant had been opened, the boy started talking and hardly slowed for breath. “I love baseball. I thought Lou was the real McCoy. When he got sick and died, I felt terrible. Kinda lost for a while. But when the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor, I felt, I guess, like a lotta other folks felt. I wanted to do my bit. You know, do something important. I wanted to fight back. So, I told my mom and dad and my girl that I wanted to join up. The Army was already drafting and I suppose I was lucky I hadn’t been called up already. And then with us in the war, I suppose it was just a matter of time before I got drafted anyway. My mom and my girl cried and tried to talk me out of it. My dad didn’t like it either, but he fought in the Great War back before I was born, so he kinda understood. He steered me to the Navy and I …”
The boy choked back the words. Martha felt her own throat tighten and put her hand there. How young he was. How awful for someone so young to be in such a grown-up uniform. She thought briefly of her two brothers serving in the Pacific Theater and her cousin somewhere overseas. She missed them. Their wives missed them. They’d left their families behind too, but they were grown men, and this boy was so much younger than they were.
She looked back at Annie and saw her standing by the slide looking back at her. Martha gave her a reassuring smile and waved. Annie returned her smile and ran back to the swing.
“I’m … I’m sorry for slobbering,” he said.
Martha touched his arm. “It’s all right, young man.”
“My girl and me got married right before boot camp,” he said.
“That’s wonderful.” She tried to sound cheerful, but the thought of starting a marriage before going off to war saddened her.
He nodded. “She got to visit me a couple of times and I even earned an overnight liberty because I was doing so good in training.”
“I’m sure she was happy to see you.”
“Yeah. But it was hard saying goodbye again. Goodbyes are the hardest. We cried a long time.”
Martha nodded and they sat quietly for a bit, watching the children play. The sun moved overhead, warming the air enough for Martha to loosen her collar. A parade of military staff cars motored past. The sidewalks gradually filled with foot traffic.
Abruptly, he said, “We’re gonna have a baby.”
Martha inhaled sharply.
“I got a wire from her just before I got my orders to ship out.” He sobbed openly. “A baby. We’re gonna have a baby.”
Remorse rushed through her. She took his hand and squeezed. He didn’t squeeze back.
“I’ll be in the Atlantic when my baby is born. My girl … my wife … she’ll be alone when she has our baby.”
“What about your parents? Surely they will be there for her.”
“My dad and mom will help for sure. But my wife, she’s Polish. Her parents sent her to the States to live with relatives just before the Krauts invaded. They died in the Warsaw Ghetto.”
“They were Jewish?”
He nodded. “So is she.”
Martha tried to process the tragedy of their circumstances. His young wife, orphaned and pregnant. Left behind while he went off to war, maybe to die. Probably to die. His infant child never knowing its father. Her eyes watered and she turned away so he wouldn’t notice.
“What … what’s her name?” The boy didn’t respond at first. He closed his eyes, squeezing a tear free, and faced the sky. He took several long, deep breaths and whispered, “Her name is Anna.”
Martha jerked as if slapped. She palmed her cheeks. Anna. Annie.
“I won’t be there when Anna has our baby. I’ll be off on a battleship. I won’t be there when my baby is born.”
“I’m so sorry,” Martha exhaled.
He twisted his flat cap, wringing it like damp laundry. “Why did I do this? I’m … I’m scared, ma’am. I’m scared to go out there. Scared I’m never gonna see Anna again. Or ever hold my baby. I’m scared I’m gonna die out there.”
Anger swelled, smothering her sorrow. How could they send someone so young out to sea? Into combat? How could they rip apart his family before he’s had the chance to make it?
She looked down, saw the folded newspaper and the article’s headline, and realized this was happening every day. In every American city. To almost every American family. The anger subsided and sorrow took hold again.
Without thought, she put her arm around him and pulled him, this young sailor boy, this stranger … she pulled him to her and pressed his head against her shoulder. And let him cry until he couldn’t cry any longer.
A shrill whistle broke the moment. They disengaged. A bus had parked across the street, and a solid man in a Navy uniform, a white band encircling each arm and a holstered pistol high on his hip, stood beside the bus and blew his whistle a second time.
The boy stood, wiped his cheeks dry, and timidly placed his flat cap on his head. Across the street, another sailor sprinted out of a diner. Nearby, another sailor waved at his parents and left them at the curb. Farther down, another sailor kissed a young woman and slipped out of her embrace. They all made their way to the bus.
“Thank you, ma’am,” the boy said. “That was real kind of you.”
Martha wiped her own cheeks. “Nonsense, young man. I was happy to be of some comfort. I wish … I wish I had some wisdom to share with you, but I’m just not that wise. Just keep Anna and your baby in your heart. You can draw courage from your love.”
The boy managed a feeble smile. “That seems awful wise to me, ma’am.” He nodded in Annie’s direction. “I hope I can see my little girl … or boy play like that one day.”
“You will,” she said, but they both knew the words were hollow.
They didn’t say goodbye. He started toward the bus, slowly, awkwardly, as if he had to compel his unwilling legs to move. He hesitated at the open door but did not look back. The sailor in the white armbands and the pistol on his hip said something and the boy boarded.
“Mama?” a tiny voice said. “Are you okay?”
Martha looked down at her daughter’s face, cheeks flushed from activity, her mouth pouting in concern.
It was then Martha realized she was crying again. She let out a breath and dabbed her eyes. She forced a smile. “Yes, of course, Pumpkin.” She pulled Annie onto the bench next to her as the bus pulled away from the curb and rumbled down the street.
“Who was that, Mama?”
“Just a boy going … no. Not a boy. He was a young man. A young man going off to the war.”
“What was his name?”
“I … I don’t know,” Martha said with a whisper of shame. He had touched her heart, broken it for a short while. And she didn’t even know his name.
Annie squirmed on the bench and grabbed for the lunch sack. Martha handed it to her. Annie unwrapped a wax paper sandwich, took a generous bite, and smiled up at Martha. Martha couldn’t help but smile back as she reached into the sack and removed a fresh carrot for herself. They ate in silence.
Thoughts of the young sailor lingered in Martha’s mind, unbidden and sorrowful. Strangely, the familiar despair that had defined her for so long had ebbed somewhat. Not completely, but noticeably.
“Can we stay for a while, Mama?”
Martha squinted at the cracked dial of her father’s old Longines wristwatch. “Ten more minutes, okay?”
“Okay!” Annie was off the bench and halfway to the playground before Martha could tell her to be careful.
A military sedan sped down the street. And then another. They were constant reminders of the terrible circumstances that plagued the world. But, as she watched Annie laughing and swinging, Martha found solace. Whatever small comfort she may have provided to the boy, the reality was his tragic circumstances had touched her heart in such a way she could find strength within herself.
She could never be without her daughter. Whatever it took, whatever the hardships, they would be together. Martha removed the envelope from her handbag. Stared at it for a moment. Then tore it in half.
Featured image: Neysa McMein / SEPS
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