10,700 words, 1 hr., 25 min.
By Jerry A. Boggs
He and the rest of the squad had settled in at the east edge of the dense, 10-mile long forest that bordered the east side of La Ferrière-Harang, a French town 17 miles southeast of Saint-Lo and 89 miles from the English Channel.
Once again, James lingered on Josie’s underlined “I’ll be waiting for you.” Once again, his heart pounded.
While in school, he’d steal furtive glances of her as she gabbed away in the lunch room, or the hallway, where she strolled along surrounded by three or four girlfriends sometimes doubled-over laughing at her outlandishness.
She was a hoot and a handful to all her friends. That, along with her long wavy hair, the color of polished mahogany, had never failed to rev up his pulse.But what really turned him to mush was those big, bright, electric-blues.
When she aimed that sparkling, ocean blueness at him, as she often seemed to do, it set his cheeks on fire. But wasn’t that what happened to every guy she looked at?
Her eyes tethered you. Sometimes, when she walked nearby, she seemed to use them on purpose just to make you squirm under their bold, penetrating scrutiny until you turned red and excused yourself — or to make you fall in love, if you were brave enough, with this irrepressible mutineer who probably at age 13 tore up society’s rule book to follow her own canons, the “proper ways” be damned.
His throat thickened. Seeing those bright-blue eyes again might be a long way off. If ever.
Only he and four others in the squad had survived. Five had been picked off out of the night sky like clay pigeons, and the squad’s medic and his kit had been lost to a land mine when he became entangled in his parachute cords. Out of the gate, the squad was at half-strength.
To avoid the open farm fields, they’d made a slow, tense trudging through the forest in the last nine hours. That had followed a five-mile walk from C Company, positioned a mile north of La Ferrière-Harang.
Inside the forest, within 20 yards of a meadow of shin-high grass, everyone except James tried to grab a precious few minutes of sleep in the mugginess. But flying insects — “motorized freckles,” somebody had called them — alighting on nose, ears, and lips had other ideas for them.
He folded the letter along its creases and returned it to his uniform shirt pocket. It had arrived two months ago and since then he’d read it ten times. Again, after finishing it, he didn’t know whether to laugh at her brazenness or cry over possibly never being able to return to her, and so, again, he squashed both, his eyes stinging.
He’d better get a chance to answer her soon, though. Even the strongest feelings could fade in time.
Gripping his binoculars, he rolled over onto his stomach. He pulled his upper body over the damp, loamy rise he’d used as a head prop while reading Josie’s letter. He aimed the binoculars through a small clearing in the trees and brush. A wide meadow of grass, ghostly gray-green beneath the dusk sky, sprawled beyond the forest.
About 200 yards out on the other side of the meadow, a small farm village of five or six houses nestled in the twilight. Two German soldiers had finished unloading munitions out of one of their four canvassed trucks into an old, unpainted barn whose south side faced the American squad. A more secure underground cache apparently hadn’t been located. The soldiers jogged toward each other as they swung shut the barn’s outsize double doors.
James’s squad, Second Squad, led by Staff Sergeant Bill Combs, had been scouting for worthy bombing targets farther east or south of La Ferrière-Harang. When finding one, they were to notify Command, relay coordinates, and hightail it out of the way.
But on a tip from the Resistance, Command had diverted Comb’s squad to the outskirt of this forest for a different mission.
According to The Resistance, krauts had for some time been pulling their ammo dumps out of range of naval cannon fire. Now they fast-hauled them out of the Saint-Lo area. For good reason. On July 25, ordered by General Omar Bradley, Operation Cobra’s nearly 3,000 bombers and 500 fighter bombers had rained hell there in the form of tens of thousands of bombs along a three-mile-wide stretch of German forces. Cobra’s carpet-bombing had let the Allied Forces make their first breakout since being hemmed in for more than a month after D-Day. The Allies now had, no doubt to the Germans’ horror, a platform from which they could attack the krauts on their own soil.
The krauts, The Resistance said, were moving their munitions to hidden storages. The weapons and ammunition would help the Germans evacuating Saint-Lo to regroup and resume combat aggressiveness after having been put on their back foot. Or they’d help the Germans defend themselves in a strategic retreat if necessary.
The squad’s new mission: Seize and hold any new munitions dumps until Command dispatched trucks to collect and cart them away.
James’s stomach had quivered. For the truck drivers, it was a dangerous mission, to say the least. Their chance of surviving through kraut-infested territory…he shook his head.
The two krauts who’d shut the barn doors scrambled into the last of the trucks accelerating away. The convoy would likely head to another village farther east or south. Not too many eggs in one basket. The Germans were savages, but they weren’t stupid.
Blond-haired Sgt. Combs, 29, leaned up on an elbow from his bed of leaves. He’d been raised and home-schooled in a remote cabin on a North Dakota plain. One of C Company’s nine squad leaders, he was probably as erudite as any of them.
“Farrow? Heard the trucks.”
James kept his binoculars aimed at the front of the barn. “Yeah, they’re finished. A trupp left behind, seven…make that eight. One with a radio. And one shoulder board, white, looks like. I’m guessing second leutnant.”
Sarge sat up. “Piece of cake.”
Private Pete Drullinger, still prone and eyes shut, crossed his arms. “What you said the last time.”
Pete, a wiry, six-foot-three 20-year-old, included in his arsenal a hickory slingshot. In his home town in Alabama, the slingshot had earned him a reputation as an expert hunter. It had earned him one in the squad, too. On their 20-mile trek through the forest, Pete had used a few of the stones he carried in his pocket to bag two half-starved rabbits nobody in the squad had wanted any part of. They couldn’t have eaten them anyway. Cooking them would have pin-pointed their location.
James shifted his binoculars one or two degrees. “Four French adults watching the krauts. Four kids, five to seven years old, about. And a toddler for God’s sake.”
Pete shoved himself up on his knees and snatched a foot-long stick out of the forest-floor debris. He stabbed it hard into the ground.
Private Tony Moretti, swatting at insects, had not sat up. He was born and raised in the Bronx. Rumor said the brick-shaped and muscular second-generation Italian could take down a bull. To be slugged by him was to be introduced to a hurled anvil.
He yawned. “Bacon and eggs, please. Over easy.” He punched his head up, took in the group. “Oh, first dibs on the Luger.”
“Have to be the one to take the shoulder board down,” the squad’s radioman said. Private First Class Horace Adams, college-educated and cerebral, sometimes tacked a bit pretentious. He came to a sitting position, strapped on his helmet, and gave it a tap on top. “Remember?”
“Ah, Mister By The Book–”
“Know what?” Sgt. Combs said, a bite in his voice. “I’ll personally shoot the first asshole that jeopardizes this mission just to get his hands on a goddamn Luger.”
Tony’s head dropped back. “Fuggadoodle. Forget I parted my flappers.” He dug into his pocket and extracted his Mail Pouch ribbon-cut chewing tobacco. He bit off a plug and fingered it into the side of his mouth, a habit developed during a short stint on a baseball team before being drafted. “A chew first, then rats, I always say.”
“In fact,” Sarge said, “whack a hole in that kraut lieutenant — please — but until this is over, the Luger’s off limits. Their radio ain’t. Priority one. The guy that zaps it quick’s gonna steal my heart.”
James turned around. “Anyone who puts the civilians in danger, especially the children — I’ll come at you, too, my hands on your throat.”
Tony flipped an arm. “All right all right all right. My white flag’s up.”
A smile worked along James’s lips. If he ever went at Tony the Anvil with just his hands, Tony knew as well as he did he’d need a lot more than that.
“I want this to be a silent movie,” the sarge said. “Knife and bayonet show. ‘Course, I don’t always get my way. Things spin out of control real quick. But let’s try like hell to protect those miserable French civilians like they’re family.”
“They are, in a way,” James said. “Might be part of the Resistance.”
Sarge bobbed his chin at Horace. “Fetch Tracks. Tell him what we got. Ask if we can have the Jimmy in the village by midnight. Hopefully, we’ll finish our business by then. But if we don’t prevail – and the Jimmy gets through – they should be prepared for an ambush–”
“More a hamlet than a village,” Horace said. He pulled his EE-8 field phone into his lap and unsnapped its olive drab canvas case.
Tony came to a cross-legged sit, hands on his knees, elbows bowed out. “‘S’matter with you, Horace?” To Combs: “Sarge, what about the ‘piece of cake’?”
“Tony baloney, didn’t hear the first part? Said I’d like to eat a piece of cake. Already bone weary of that canned crap we got.”
Tony wagged his thumb toward Pete. “Pretty sure they’re better’n his skinny old rabbits woulda been.”
Pete had his slingshot out, stretching it, testing it. He aimed it at Tony’s head. “How come you’re snickering?”
“No reason. Just being a dumb-ass.”
“Then shouldn’t you be snickering all the time?”
“Pretending dumbness,” Horace said, “is not something Tony has enough gray matter to pull off.”
“Tell you what, Mr. Radio Phoney Man,” Tony said, “if a ratzi wants to gut you today, I’ll hold you still. Sound good?”
A couple of snort-giggles erupted in the squad. James blew out air, felt himself relax a bit.
Combs’ genius included knowing when to interfere and when not to. The captain may have advised the sarge, “If you can’t do anything to curb stress, let flow liberal amounts of joviality, even the biting kind.”
It took ten minutes for the captain to be rounded up at C Company. The company had flown into Normandy on the heels of Operation Cobra’s bombers. The troops had parachuted into an area just south of Saint Lo, riddled with craters and crumbled buildings. They’d quickly become operational despite taking heavy losses.
Horace, his conversation with the captain ending, said smartly, “Yes sir,” and hung up.
“Tracks says we’re to secure the munitions and they’re to be delivered to the Resistance. Command has already sent him three Jimmys. Would’ve been four but one didn’t make it. Extra 15 men, two with Tommy guns. A belt-fed mounted on the lead Jimmy. Couple of BARs. One medic. They’re all coming. ETA: 2400 hours. After the munitions are removed, we’re to sit tight and wait till we’re told where the krauts’ll stash another load.”
“Good. Good.” The sarge dragged a hand down over his face and turned his head toward the meadow. In the distant northwest, shelling boomed again, six or seven in quick succession. “Let’s pray they get here and don’t catch an 88 broadside.”
“Cripes,” Tony said. “If the Resistance wants it, why can’t they–“
“Not enough of them’re around here in this area to pull it off,” the sarge said facing them. “Don’t have their hands on a lot of equipment — trucks, carts.”
“Helping them helps us,” James said. “They have snipers. They blow up bridges. Roads. Railroads.”
“And orders are orders,” Sarge said in a dismissal of the topic.
Tony spat. A wet clump of tobacco catapulted in an arc from his mouth and walloped leaves.
“Christ,” Horace said. James pictured his scrunched-up face. “Some weapon you got there. Any foe gets within striking distance of one of your brown bombers, he’s finished. How long will you remain nominally developed? Worse than the crappy kraut schwein.”
The radioman, not known to have a well-honed sense of humor, likely hadn’t meant to be funny. Was he annoyed when chuckles rippled through the squad?
“Anybody in slingshot distance, too,” Sgt. Combs said, teeth visible in a grin at Pete.
In a matter of minutes, the sun’s fingers of orange light would retract and night would pull down a suffocating blackness. The only thing visible until moon-rise, besides the horizon-to-horizon threads and webs of brilliant pin-point stars, would be the tiny, dim lamplight in a few village windows 200 yards away.
“All right,” Sgt. Combs said. “About an hour before enough moonlight for us to see–“
“And be seen,” Pete said.
Complete darkness enveloped them.
“We move in ten.” Whenever Combs launched into instructions, he spoke with a military crispness, no doubt wanting to signal “the sarge was in charge.” The crispness, braced in his Midwestern twang, rendered his words sharp as tacks.
“Last chance to piss and crap. Or upchuck your rats. Horace, radio off. Everybody line up behind me five feet apart. Listen for the footsteps of the man in front of you. I’ll hone in on the first lighted window just to the right of the barn. We’ll be able to see the barn, of course, as we get closer. If the light in that window goes out, I’ll lead you toward the one on the left of the barn. Farrow, spot any binocs?”
“No, but that doesn’t mean–”
“Right right right. Gotta assume they at least do occasional eyeball sweeps our way. We should be pretty much invisible against the backdrop of the forest.”
“’Pretty much.’ How comforting,” Pete said. “Need a guarantee of my safety in writing, or I’m sittin’ this one out.”
James and Tony gave the chuckles Pete no doubt had fished for.
“My rocker and stripes’re all you need to get your ass moving, vicious murderer of sweet little bunny rabbits.”
Combs’ voice took on a serious tone. “Goes without saying we gotta move slow. Slow and single file makes less forward noise. Noise carries nicely on a field like this. It’s a belly-crawl the last 75 yards–“
“An Army,” Horace said, “like a serpent, goes upon its belly.“
“On our empty bellies we’ll be way too low to be seen,” James said in a feeble attempt to further ease the mounting tension.
Still on his stomach, he felt a slap on his calf.
“Hey Tony.” James flipped over and sat up.
“–heard you rattling paper again. When you gonna read that sugar report to us? Must be a real canary, eh, fellows?”
“Never o’clock about ri–?”
“Troops,” Sgt Combs said, “let’s plug it up.”
He drew in a breath. “I’ll stop when we’re about 50 feet from the barn. Each of you snake out to the right and pull up even with the man in front of you. Lateral formation, four or five feet apart. Be ready to spring. Moretti, you’re gonna shimmy up to within ten feet of the barn. You’re my strongest, my best horse. Gotta beat you.”
“Figured I’d get used and abused.” In Tony’s voice, was there less mirth than peevishness? When he “whined,” nobody could ever really tell for sure.
“Tell it to G.I. Jesus,” Horace said. James heard him snap shut his EE-8.
“We lay low,” the sarge said, “and wait for good moonlight. We observe, get a feel for things, where they patrol, see if they do it in ones or twos. Oh, Pete, how the hell do you keep those rocks quiet in your pockets?”
“Magic, Sarge. My spare socks jammed in there.”
“You’re with me.”
James heard Combs slip his helmet on.
“Time, troops. My usual speech. Check and re-check bayonets, ammo, knives. Batten down your dangles — hold back your smart-ass remarks, Tony. When we get there, stay alert to stay vertical. Remember, you’re the best. Handpicked. Full of grit and guts. Those krauts’ chances are between zero and none — ’cause what we’re dealing with here is a piece of–“
“Cake,” five voices said.
Jangled nerves were quieted, for a jiffy. In war, they were like the shooed insects — they kept returning.
In the black-as-coal forest, James donned his helmet. He left it unstrapped. If a kraut sneaked up from behind and yanked on the helmet’s visor to throw him off balance, he might be surprised long enough for James to get the upper hand. James sucked in air and climbed to his feet. With the rest of the squad of American paratroopers, he headed out of the forest.
“Oh, the frisson of enmity!” Horace said. “The human species at its nadir.”
“He talking to us?” Tony said.
“Yodeling on about nothing as usual,” Pete said.
“I swear to God, Private First Class Hemorrhoid, you make my back teeth hurt.” There was the unmistakable sound of a lobbed tobacco wad.
“File your cri de coeur through the usual channels,” Horace said.
“What say I file you in the English Channel?”
“Horace,” Sgt. Combs said in a low voice, “guess his loins no longer lust for you. Silencio from here on, señoritas.”
The stars faintly illuminated Pete’s tall outline in front of James. But seeing the men wasn’t necessary. Their boots’ soft rustling through the knee-high grass was enough. Or their smell – sweat, body odor, and, in at least one of them, urine.
The nearer they got to the village, the more James’s stomach churned. Fear, as Combs had once said, was something you carried around with your gear.
On the northwest horizon, scattered clouds above Saint Lo 20 miles away pulsated with orange and red, like hellish lightning telling of the horrors of the continuing Normandy invasion. Crisscrossing searchlights, like white needles, scissored in the dark sky. They were the eyes for the German 88s that chewed up everything they slammed into. Mingled here and there with the searchlights, tiny explosions flared and thin crimson flames streaked Earthward.
Something tore at James’s soul. The whole world was shattering, coming apart right in front of him.
Could he survive?
Could a sand castle survive a tidal wave?
Josie, don’t give up on me!
Her face swam before him. He’d written a reply to her in England right after receiving her letter. But when he found out Army censors would read it, he put a match to it and dispatched it to a large rusty trash barrel. For the umpteenth time since, another letter took shape in his head.
“Dear Josie, this may never get to you, but can’t I hope? Please don’t lose patience with me, figuring I got killed or something. You said you’d wait–”
Pete stopped in front of him. The barn’s massive black form loomed just ahead. They’d reached the belly-crawl stage. They went to the ground in silence. Still in single file, cradling their rifles, they pushed their knees and elbows through the grass, five uniformed salamanders pressing toward — death?
Ten minutes later, Combs stopped. Pete angled out to his right, James to Pete’s right, and Horace to his. Tony salamandered on.
A breeze brought the quiet conversations of the Germans in the front of the barn. After a bit, it seemed no kraut was going to patrol. Maybe these Germans were stupid.
James stiffened. At the corner of the barn, a shaky light flashed and bounced. A kraut’s boots shuffled through weeds. The German paused and cast his beam out over their heads across the meadow toward the forest. He swung its beam from side to side, lowered it to the front of him again, and continued in their direction.
James quashed a yelp. Tony would be spotted. Would the kraut think Tony was a lone scout the German could take out on his own? Doubtful.
James arched up on his knees, rifle in his left hand, knife in his right, muscles tense.
Wait! A dumb move. Did both Germans and Americans have a claim on stupidity?
A lightning-fast, soft flutter to his left startled him.
“Autsch!” the kraut said. “Was zur Hölle!” His flashlight dipped as he bent. He laid his rifle down, pulled his trouser leg out of his jackboot, and shined the light on his white flesh. His flashlight hand pinned the bottom of his trouser to his lower thigh, keeping the light slanted down. His other hand rubbed a blotch on the side of his knee. Blood?
Tony, in the tall grass ten feet away, launched himself at the preoccupied kraut, a lion pouncing on an unsuspecting gazelle.
The German had no time to react. Tony’s powerful hand clamped hard over the kraut’s mouth. They scuffled, two shadowy, dream-like figures in a strange, jerky dance.
For two seconds, the flashlight’s cone of yellow zipped back and forth, up and down on the barn boards. It plunged into the weeds, providing minimal light.
A long, muffled moan. James cringed.
To signal “okay,” Tony gave one low click of his D-Day cricket clicker, using the code the squad had created to communicate among themselves after parachuting in and regrouping. He lowered the kraut to the ground, his hand still over the German’s mouth.
One down, seven to go.
Tony retrieved the flashlight. Had the other krauts noticed the wildly gyrating flashes of light? How could they not? How much time before a full-throttle confrontation? Tony swept the flashlight across the field a few times. The krauts might figure their man had dropped it and resumed his patrol. Quick thinking.
Sgt. Combs, invisible, clicked his cricket twice: Remain still.
Combs signaled again. The squad rose as one out of the weeds. They grouped up against the barn, facing toward its front. Their labored breathing worried James.
At the corner of the barn behind the squad, something bumped and scraped. James eased a look. He nipped a sharp intake of air in the bud. Faint moonlight revealed the stirring form of a kraut helmet.
“Amerikaner! Amerikaner!” The kraut’s footfalls beat the earth, fading away.
“Play time,” the sarge said, his voice tight. “Let’s do it.”
He grabbed the flashlight out of Tony’s hand. Holding it at arm’s length out to the side, and with his .45 in the other hand, he loped around the corner to the front. James trailed directly behind, his heart banging in his chest.
The kraut who’d peeked around the rear corner of the barn was joining two others who had their rifles ready. He turned and darted toward a house with light in the windows.
The other two, shielding their eyes against Sgt. Combs’ flashlight with one shaky hand, snapped off a couple of rounds toward the light with the other, striking nothing.
Sarge’s pistol flared four times, sounding like small firecrackers. Each of the two krauts took two. One crumpled like a rag doll. The second tottered backward a few feet and stood still. He stared unblinking into Combs’ light, then fell forward, his face taking the brunt.
Several small dogs and hounds somewhere in the night loosed plaintive yelps and bays. From treetops, clusters of tiny shadows rocketed, their screeching and chittering fading as they funneled into a spiraling stream up into the moonlit sky’s zenith.
Tony, Horace, and Pete regrouped around Combs and James.
On the east horizon, visible through the treetops on the far side of the village, a pale-gold full moon peeked over a scattering of modest clouds. It laid a glow and long shadows across the village. Shapes distinguished themselves.
“The other krauts — where?” Tony whispered.
The answer jarred James. A Mauser rifle made a snapping noise a millisecond after a bullet zinged his helmet.
The sarge switched off the flashlight and tossed it. In unison the five American soldiers dived and hugged the hay-strewn ground in front of the barn doors. The hay’s dry taste invaded James’s mouth. The pungent smell of animal urine inflamed his nostrils.
The Mauser’s snap had sprung from a woodpile beyond the wide dirt road meandering between the barn and three of the five village houses. The shot appeared to have been managed so as not to strike the barn. The krauts couldn’t risk penetrating it and setting off an explosion that might destroy their entire ammo dump as it leveled everything within 50 yards.
Boots thumping the ground grew louder. In the moonlight, krauts sprinted in from different directions. James made out four.
The Germans took positions 75 yards away. Muzzles emitted pin-point flashes. Dirt and straw pitched around the Americans and sprinkled down on their helmets and backs.
“Stay mobile,” Combs whispered across the ground. “Anybody got an idea where that shoulder board is?”
“Didn’t see him. Too dark now,” James said. He rolled over twice and returned three rounds. The echoes of the rifle snaps around the village structures sounded like the shagbark hickory blowing apart under his ax when as a teen he split sawed logs at his parents’ farm house.
Another volley came their way, exploding earth nearer.
“Keep your rifles off the cottages,” Sgt. Combs said. “If you have a shot, forget it if there’s a house behind him.”
“What if that lets the krauts overrun us?” Tony said. “And how do we know these villagers are worth protecting? Might be Nazis.”
“Kinda doubt those little kids are,” James said. The thought of the children gave him pause. They had to be terrified around the clock of the gunfire, the distant booming, the war.
“Good point,” Pete said. “But Tony’s got one, too.”
“If we can’t protect children,” James said, “what the hell good are we? We can’t help the French and at the same time put them in harm’s way if we can avoid it.”
“And orders are orders,” Combs said in his military crispness. “Tony, you aren’t wrong. James is just more ri–“
“Smarter’n us,” Pete said. “Reckon he’s even smarter’n Egghead. Excuse me. Horace. Better looking, too.”
James spread his legs apart in open-scissor position, his ankles flattened. He planted his elbows in the dirt and straw. In his rifle scope, the top of a kraut helmet glimmered inches above the wood pile between two houses where James had heard the clap of the Germans’ first shot. His trigger finger tugged as the helmet slid below the pile. His bullet couldn’t have missed more than the width of a dime.
The helmet slid back up in his scope. He squeezed again.
His whisper was harsh. “Damnit, stove pipe! Didn’t notice it. Bad ammo?”
James slapped Combs’ arm. He thrust his index finger across the sergeant’s line of vision and toward the house he’d seen the fleeing German enter.
“That kraut ran in there. He’s got their radio. Going after him.”
Combs and the other three men rolled apart, staying in shadows.
James knew the strategy they’d likely attempt. Two would advance from cover to cover as the other two lay down suppressive bursts to keep the krauts’ heads down. They’d take up positions and begin their own hot salvo. The two left behind would likewise advance, then blaze away. Repeat until enemy defeated.
The strategy would be difficult enough, especially considering the dark hindered as much as helped. But caution about where their rifles were directed could, like Tony had warned, make it harder and put the men at risk.
The krauts could employ the same advancing strategy, but they faced a similar conundrum — keeping their shots off the barn. They may have already addressed it, considering the angle of their first shot and how spread apart they appeared to be.
A heavy “Uhhh!” erupted across the road. Three krauts left?
James scooted away. The battle noise carrying on behind him, he moved in a crouched gait back around the side of the barn to the rear. He paused to work his rifle bolt and eject the jammed, upright cartridge.
His insides roiled. What if he were wrong and Tony were right? Maybe he’d been too quick dismissing Tony’s warning.
He crossed the rear of the barn and halted at the corner. The brightening moon lay a soft whiteness over a split-rail fence along the rear of an empty pig pen. The stench tilted his head.
He crept alongside the fence. Where were the pigs? Eaten by villagers starving at the hands of the krauts who’d confiscated their grain and raided their gardens? Or, as he’d heard often happened, had they been hauled away with the chickens, sheep, and horses to feed German soldiers short on food? Was that how the krauts had emptied the barn to make room for their munitions?
Less than half a minute later, he arrived the end of the fence and slowed as he moved past a five-foot gap between the fence and a large rain barrel, a tractor, and an old wagon loaded with hay. The gap must have been how the kraut came around behind the barn and spotted them.
He pressed toward the house the German had fled into. He circled wide to stay out of the window light.
Sweat nettled his forehead. It annoyed the side of his nose on its way to his upper lip. As he neared the back door, his grip tightened on his rifle, his life preserver. Would his bullets fire when needed? Or was his rifle defective? It was supposed to be great! So said the manufacturer.
His bayonet nudged the unlocked door.
A kerosene lamp on the fireplace mantle illuminated a kitchen. On the wooden dinner table were two used cups and plates and a cast-iron frying pan, its handle extending over the table edge. A weapon, maybe, for the sallow-faced, middle-aged woman hiding under the table. Huddled close to her was a wispy girl of about ten. Curled up on their knees, they were whispering to each other.
James tensed, ready to spring toward her. Was she a sympathizer?
Their hollow eyes lifted to the thin squeak of a floorboard. James’s finger went to his lips. The woman nodded and softly told her daughter, “Ne parle pas.” She craned her head to the side and jabbed a hand toward a closed door at the bottom of which a faint strand of light shone.
James eased his boots across the floor, heel-toe, heel-toe. He put his ear to the door. A whisper-level urgency: “Bist du da? Hallo. Hallo. Kapitän Schreiber, kannst du mich hören? Bist du da? Ah, Kapitan Schrieber, wir werden angegriffen!”
James cursed himself for not learning at least a modicum of German, as many of the Allied troops did.
Had his boots made the floor groan in the kraut’s room, a groan too heavy for a small, bony woman?
Did the kraut have a weapon ready?
He froze, trying to control his ragged breathing. Tendons strained in his neck.
He counted on the kraut sensing his presence. Holding his rifle against his chest with both hands, he yanked a foot up to waist-level. The plank door flew open and loose of its upper hinge under his hard-thrust, steel-heeled boot.
Five feet away, the glistening-faced German soldier, an obergrenadier maybe 30, was sitting on the near side of a sagging bed, a phone handset to his ear. In a corner, a kerosene lamp’s yellow flame burned low.
The kraut sprang to his feet, his eyes like a cornered animal’s. His shadow loomed over most of the headboard wall. He twisted toward his rifle on the bed pillows.
James bridged the distance and swept his rifle stock against the kraut’s jaw.
The man was flung across the bed. He lay silent, eyes closed.
James grimaced. “Sorry, fella,” he said under his breath.
The American soldier ripped the handset from the kraut’s fingers and tore the cord out of the radio battery pack. He beat the handset against the battery posts, shattering it in the process.
The German rocked his head. Awareness returned to his blinking eyes. He regarded James, then his gaze drifted to the ceiling. Exhaling, he appeared to relax.
The kraut arched up, slinging a fist. His second encounter with James’s rifle was even more brutal, this time a hard slug of the butt square in the face.
Adrenaline had pumped too much strength into James’s arms. The blow had landed harder than he’d intended. The radioman, a cheekbone collapsed and his red, bleeding nose crushed to the side, didn’t move. Neither did his chest.
James looked off and shook his head. Why the hell hadn’t he stayed down? He was old enough to have a wife and children, for God’s sake.
He extracted an extra clip from the German’s belt ammo pouch. He slid it and the radioman’s rifle out of sight under the bed. The woman would find them later. She might consider them compensation for her damaged door. At the least, she’d be able to retire her arsenal that comprised one unwieldy cast-iron frying pan.
He paused. The kraut on the other end of the radioman’s interrupted call might already have guessed something went bad.
Outside, the rifle snaps grew fiercer.
He hurried out of the room.
The woman and the girl were gone.
Four feet away, a Luger. Leveled at his midriff. The shoulder board. He’d removed his helmet. In his left hand, a combat knife gleamed. In his eyes, a fierceness blazed. His mouth twisted into a cruel smile in the midst of a two-week-old, splotchy ashy-brown beard. No doubt the moment was worth savoring.
Had the German officer been gutless and hiding to avoid the battle, maybe terrorizing the woman and her child?
Why hadn’t he fired yet? What was he waiting for?
He listened. Silence. The gun battle outside had quieted. Had his unit prevailed? A Luger’s pop was distinctive. The leutnant couldn’t take the chance.
Neither could James if his squad had been bested. His M1’s snap identified itself as well to the Germans. He’d better escape now, before the krauts discovered him here.
He deked to the side, then leaned toward the leutnant, thrusting his bayonet.
The slender, deft kraut side-stepped and shunted James’s bayonet with his pistol. His knife slashed at his face.
The American soldier had maintained his balance. He jerked his head back. The blade sliced the air an inch from his throat.
Blood surged hot in his ears. To hell with it. Maybe he could slip out through the same door he’d entered before the leutnant’s men poured in.
Holding his rifle at waist level, he tipped the barrel upward a couple of inches. Shooting from the hip was seldom a good idea, no matter how many times Tom Mix and Gene Autry did it.
He squeezed. Nothing. But no stovepipe. His whole body iced over.
The kraut officer’s eyes widened. He leaped.
James tried again. The rifle’s loud crack in the house startled him. The bullet tore through the flesh of the kraut’s Luger forearm, a minor wound. It punched a hole in the wall behind the leutnant high enough to avoid striking anyone in the next room, especially the child.
In no time, either Americans or Germans would storm in.
The Luger thunked on the floor. The kraut’s good left hand yanked the knife head-high, its shiny tip aimed toward James. The man lunged, arcing the knife down toward the American’s chest.
James heaved his upper torso back in time, but the razor-sharp steel blade plunged into his left thigh.
It took all he had to stifle the scream exploding inside him.
His rifle fell from his fingers. Both of his hands seized the kraut’s fist gripping the knife buried in his flesh. Using every bit of his strength, James held on to it. He buckled next to the table, dragging the kraut down half on top of him. When he rested his head on the floor in agony, his helmet wobbled off.
The German glanced around. His blood-soaked, trembling hand reached for the handle of the cast-iron pan on the table.
James tried to twist his body to flip the kraut. His thigh reacted as though raked by a blow-torch.
Out of his vision behind him, the rear door banged against the wall. Heavy boots pummeled the floor planks, vibrating in his spine and shoulder blades.
He gasped, his heart hammering even more. The krauts! Tony had been right! The squad’s caution when firing toward the village had been their downfall, a caution the krauts hadn’t had to worry about — and wouldn’t have worried about.
The iron pan descended. The 20-year-old American soldier had only enough time to turn his face to the floor.
“Josie…Electric Blue…so sorry.”
At 9:30 p.m. on a mid-October Saturday, he parked his folks’ pine-green ’40 Hudson Coupe on the opposite side of the street from her home and got out. A chilly breeze nipped his face.
Was it chilly, or did rattled nerves make it seem so?
In his Army dress uniform and visor cap, he limped across the road, through dried leaves scuttling like crabs, and along the walk to her porch. He stiff-legged his injured limb up the three steps and stood beneath the light. As he’d done countless times before squeezing the trigger of his rifle, he drew in a slow breath, let it ease out.
Would she accept his injuries, the way he walked? Would she see just a shadow of the man she last saw two years ago?
He had to breathe in again as his stomach churned. What if she’d given up and no longer cared?
She said she’d wait! She’d underlined it!
His fist poised to knock. The door receded to reveal through the screen door a woman in her early 40s. A turquoise cardigan sweater was draped over her shoulders and buttoned at the neck.
He removed his cap. “Hello! Mrs. Taylor? Josie’s mom? Is Josie home?”
“Thought I heard a car door shut.” She took in his uniform and his bandaged right hand. Her intake of air was audible.
“Oh my goodness. You — you’re James — James Farrow?” Her big smile faded as quickly as it had blossomed. She unlatched the screen door and stepped back. She lowered her head. “You’d better come in and have a sit.”
In the living room, his heart stopped and his legs turned to jelly. On the wall, surrounded by a large, decorative, silver leaf oval frame, Josie beamed at him in her black high-school graduation cap and gown. Her big blue-topazine eyes mesmerized him, again.
“She not here, ma’am?”
“She gets her beautiful looks from her dad’s mother, her Grandma Sarah, who’s crazy about her.” Mrs. Taylor stood in front of the white settee, a hand pressed against her abdomen.
“You call her Electric Blue? It fits.” She fastened the tiniest hint of an approving smile to her regard of James. The hand on her mid-riff traveled to her necklace and toyed with the purple heart pendant.
Mr. Taylor, sitting in the corner, stirred. Josie’s picture had blinded James to all else in the room.
“I– I’m sorry,” Mrs. Taylor said, her voice sounding tight. “I’m Margaret and this is my husband Sid. You can see where she gets that blue. The family joke my ma Edna likes to tell is I’m not Josie’s real mother.” Another faint smile evaporated.
James nodded at Mr. Taylor. “Nice to meet you.”
Mr. Taylor, in his mid-40s, a Popular Mechanics magazine in his hand, rose from a cushioned wooden rocker next to a brass floor lamp. His storm of white hair grabbed less of James’ attention than the blue eyes he’d given Josie.
A minimal pleasantness showed on his face. He waved a hello and gave the back of his neck a rub. Shifting his jaw, he semi-plopped back into his rocker. The closed magazine went to the floor next to the lamp. In his lap, one hand hasped the fingers of the other. He seemed to be studying the nearly wall-to-wall green and rose-colored carpet.
Mrs. Taylor eased herself onto the edge of the settee. Her eyes, like Mr. Taylor’s, seemed to have trouble meeting James’s. She gestured.
He sat down in a rust-brown easy-chair with white flower-patterned doilies on the arms and back. “I apologize for coming by so late. Got home just a couple of hours ago. Told my folks if I waited until tomorrow to see Josie, I wouldn’t sleep all night.”
He dropped his smile. “Oh by the way, on the way over here a couple of jokers hassled me at a light a couple of miles back. Drove up behind me real fast like they were going to ram me, then took off. And son-of-a-gun if it didn’t happen again at the next light. What the heck’s going–?”
“Yeah,” Mr. Taylor said, undoing his hands. “That’s the new night-time thing over there lately — punks getting their jollies out of scaring the bejeebers out of people.”
He frowned. “They’ve stepped up the horsecrap. Week ago, a fella got dragged out of his car, beaten up, put in the hospital. I’d tell you to take a different way home but we got way too many farm fields and rough roads around Trinity. Might take you all night. Maybe just pause a second or two at the lights, then take off. Nobody’d blame you.”
“Thank you, sir. Might just do that.”
Using the tips of the three fingers protruding from his bandage, James draped his cap over the end of the chair arm. He flicked the hand up and down.
“Damage was to the adductor pollicis, flexor tendons, and the lumbrical muscles at the center of my palm. Trauma to the median nerve in the thumb.” He gave a small chuckle. “Sound like a doctor. But my hand’s more useful by the day. Said give it four more months and it’ll be like new except for some numbness.”
Mrs. Taylor flashed a weak smile without looking at him. Neither she nor Mr. Taylor said anything.
His heart racing, James scanned Mr. Taylor’s face, then hers. “Forgive me for stating the obvious, but…something’s wrong.” His good hand tightened on the chair arm. “Is she o–?”
“Don’t know how to tell you this, James.” Mrs. Taylor’s fingers had returned to her pendant. Her chin dipped. She seemed as if trying to hide breathlessness. “You see–“
“Want me to tell him?” Mr. Taylor said.
She stuck her hand up, shook her head. “About– about two months ago, she started…going with Tommy — Tommy Garrison. Last week he asked her to marry him.” She looked away, biting her lip. “My Josie said yes.”
The German lieutenant’s knife to his thigh had been easier to take than this knife to his heart. A dizziness swayed him as he cast about the room for something to focus on, to anchor to.
“We tried to talk her out of it,” Mr. Taylor said, “but….”
Mrs. Taylor’s lap, one cupped hand slapped into the other.
“James. She was so excited about you, so in — in love with you. You never answered her letter. Even your parents worried something happened to y–“
“Yeah,” Mr. Taylor said. “Josie drove out to see your parents, about a month–“
“She was going steady with Tommy then! Doesn’t that tell you where her heart was?”
Was. Another knife to his heart.
Mr. Taylor twisted in his rocker. “Your parents said they sent you a letter a few weeks before Josie drove over, and they hadn’t heard back. They wrote to Army Headquarters, got a damn form letter saying you were behind enemy lines and they’d be notified of updates. Cold as ice water. Your mama and daddy promised to let us know as soon as they found out anything.”
James nodded, a rigid motion. He searched for what to say. As he strained to speak, the words barely made it off his lips. “The Army was slow. I got back to the States before my status was confirmed–”
“Tommy said you probably found yourself a French girlfriend,” Mrs. Taylor said. “Sid and I” — she flipped a hand toward her husband — “we figured Josie’s letter never got to you. The craziness over there. What was it, Sid? I can’t listen to the news much.”
“Normandy invasion. And the push-through,” Mr. Taylor told her. “Craziness and then some.”
James blinked twice to staunch the watering in his eyes. It got worse.
“Didn’t get her letter until the middle of May, when I was in England. The War Department wouldn’t let us write to anybody. Too many spies, I guess. Figured I’d answer when things settled down a bit. They never did. It was hell. No way to get a letter delivered anyway. Too deep into kraut territory.”
Mrs. Taylor fixed on his hand, her forehead creased. “How bad was it, may I ask?”
His energy — his motivation — to talk was draining fast.
“Was unconscious three days. Woke up in Bayeux, a tent hospital near the Channel. How come we didn’t get killed on the way, I’ll never know.”
His stared at a spot on the wall halfway between the two of them. He couldn’t allow himself even a glance at Josie’s picture.
“My sarge got permission to go with me. He told them I took a hard blow to the head. An iron frying pan–“
Mrs. Taylor drew back, capped a hand over her mouth.
“Oh my God,” her husband said.
“Wasn’t full on — the floor caught most of it. But it was enough to give me a temporary brain injury and tamper with my memory for a while. Don’t even remember being hit. But the headaches remind me. They’re tapering off.”
He clamped his eyes shut. “Do remember the kraut stabbing my thigh. I was holding on like hell to his hand to keep him from finishing me off. Sarge told me that just before the pan came down, the German snatched the knife out of my grip, slicing my–“
“James.” Mrs. Taylor shielded her eyes.
He flexed his bandaged hand at the wrist again. “Anyway, how I got this. Just before that, according to Sarge, Horace our radioman yelled in German at the kraut lieutenant, ‘You son of a bitch!'”
His face warmed. “Excuse my language.” He pulled his feet in. “I was told I was lucky to remember something so close to when my head took a hit like that. But I was unconscious when Horace put a slug in the German’s forehead and knocked him off me.”
He looked at the floor, his brows pushed high. “Horace had a pretty good handle on German. Never knew it until Sarge informed me.”
He choked back the lump in his throat, his eyes stinging. “Think I better go. Talking too much.”
Mrs. Taylor’s hand sprang up. “James. Can I get you something to eat? Got some good left-over ham in the fridge.”
He waved her off.
Mr. Taylor tilted forward in his rocker, his forearms landing on his knees. He waggled a finger.
“I don’t know if Josie ever told you, but I was over there in ’17 and ’18, on the front line. I know what you went through. The least I can do — Margaret and I can do — is give you the respect of listening to you, to whatever you want to say.” A thin smile spread across his lips. “I may be wrong, but I think you do want to say more.”
James took a moment before nodding a little.
“At Bayeaux, some hours after I woke up, Sarge came in and laid a gift on my cot. A Luger, the one the German lieutenant wanted to punch a hole in me with. I told him to give it to Private Tony Moretti. He’s the one that deserved it. He’d called first dibs on it, anyway.”
He gave them a look-over. No sign of boredom.
“Sarge told me Tony was the second one to save my life. We didn’t have a medic. After Horace shot the lieutenant, Tony slit my trouser, grabbed the slingshot sticking out of Pete Drullinger’s pocket, ripped off the rubber band, and tied a tourniquet around my upper thigh. That was faster than fumbling around for the tourniquet in his kit. Then — get this — he chews tobacco. He took the wad out of his mouth and jammed it into my wound to help staunch the bleeding. Then he wrapped my leg. Appears his Mail Pouch did the job.”
He gathered his thoughts as he bounced his eyes from one of Josie’s parents to the other. “From Bayeaux, went back to England on August 3. In rehabilitation for almost two months. Couldn’t write. Even if I’d been able to, for a long time couldn’t think straight. Memory got bad. They showed me the letter from Josie I’d been carrying around. For the longest, didn’t even remember who she was. It was October 5, I believe, when I was flown back to the States. A week later I was discharged.”
He patted the armrest a couple of times.
“By the time my head was clear enough to think of scrawling a letter with my left hand, I realized I’d get home around the same time my letter got here.”
He slid his good hand up and down his left thigh. “Imagine I’ll limp the rest of my life. Getting used to it, though. Not much pain anymore.”
“James,” Mrs. Taylor said with a glance to her husband, her voice low. Her shoulders had drooped. “I can’t tell you how sorry we are.” She stared down at her hands. “You went through so much — only to come home to this.”
Her eyes blinked, red-rimmed and glistening. She craned her head toward the window, then faced him again.
“Look, she ought to be home any jiffy now. They went to the picture show at 7:30. Sid and I, we’d like you to stay and tell her yourself what hap–“
“We’d sure appreciate it,” Mr. Taylor said, holding his gaze steady on the young man in the Army uniform. Was there a pleading in his voice?
Pushing off with his good hand, James stood up. He wobbled for a second as if on the edge of a precipice. He took his cap by the visor and peered out the window at his car across the dimly lit street. His head did a tiny shake, more a flinch.
From the wall, Josie’s beautiful eyes and smile weakened his legs, strangled his heart.
“Tell them– Tell them I wish them the best of luck.”
Inside his car, his trembling, injured hand throbbed more than usual. He fumbled to insert the key into the ignition, missing two or three times.
Headlights approached from the front. The car stopped in front of Josie’s house and directly opposite him. He’d see her just one last time, if only her silhouette.
Tommy got out. In the awkward slap-feet gait that kept him out of the Armed Forces, he maneuvered around the car and opened the door for Josie. Together, hand in hand, they entered the house without ever noticing his car.
He’d never see those electric blues again. He’d never be asked to explain why he didn’t say he had a very big crush on her.
That wound would still hurt long after his other wounds had healed.
He stared straight ahead into the dark, numbed. Where from here? Who from here?
Would her parents tell her to look out the window? His eyes lingered on her door for several minutes. He faced forward again, grappling for the ignition. He squeezed his eyes shut tight. Why did the world have to keep crumbling away underneath him?
Tommy’s car revved up. It peeled away down the street. Hadn’t he heard two doors shut?
“Goodbye, Josie,” he heard himself whisper.
The Hudson’s engine rattled to life. His parents needed more wood for the stove and the fireplaces. He’d carry a lamp out to the log pile and saw up pieces his dad could split tomorrow. His good hand would saw, and saw, and saw, until exhaustion flattened him to the cool, grassy earth.
He turned the car around and drove away.
At the edge of town, he braked for a light. Sure enough, headlights rushed up behind. So soon? It took a bit the last time.
Maybe he ought to get out and demonstrate what even a limping combat soldier could do, one whose intensive hand-to-hand combat training had included subduing an opponent with his favored hand lashed to his side — a limping combat soldier who didn’t worry about anything at all anymore.
The center of his chest ached.
A car door slammed. Thugs wanted to punch on him? His face burned.
He checked his outside mirror. The headlights blinded him. The fingertips of his injured hand found his dad’s sunglasses inside the package locker. He donned them, blew air, and yanked on the door handle.
The thugs would see how long they lasted in his fury. He’d send a message.
When his shoulder buffeted the door, the passenger door clicked and swung out. His whole body jerked.
Lit up in the car’s headlights, Josie ducked in and slid his service cap to the middle of the seat. She plopped down, breathing hard. Her purse went to her lap as she pulled the door shut. His cap wound up on her head.
Was this a trick of his injured brain? Was he dead and she an angel who’d descended upon him?
She twisted and waved at the rear window, a grim smile on her face. In the outside mirror, her folks’ car backed up and turned around. Its taillights receded into the night.
Light from the dashboard and the traffic light bathed her face. Her electric blueness was accentuated under the visor of his cap. He stared, unable to breathe or speak.
“James! So wonderful to see you! It’s been so long!” She removed his cap and fitted it over the rear-view mirror. “Much too long.”
Her head dipped, did a jerky, uneven shake. Her long hair rippled, cascading over the front of her cream blouson.
“I am so, so sorry. Tommy kept insisting you’d found somebody else. I wondered if–” Her hand flew up and covered her mouth and nose. “I wondered if maybe you’d been killed or captured. Every day I checked the newspaper list of the war dead and the MIAs. Every day I thanked God you weren’t on it.”
His muscles tensing, he forced his eyes away from her. Was she about to deliver the big “I’m Sorry, But?”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I am truly sorry I wasn’t more patient. Tommy caught me when I was at my lowest point ever in my life, feeling hopeless about you, thinking I’d never see you again. I told him I’d marry him.”
Her fingers lay on his forearm like feathers. “In time do you think you can forgive me?”
In his throat, the sharp, hard mass cut. Asking her to change her mind about Tommy — to break her agreement — would be dishonorable.
She sighed. “Could you pull over and turn off the car?”
He rolled the car to the edge of the road and killed the engine. He stared straight ahead at the streetlight strung across the road half a block away. The bare bulb barely lit up the car’s interior.
“James, look, you’ve heard them say behavior speaks louder than words?”
His head rotated toward her like a rusty old gate.
A smile, tiny and tremulous, danced at the corners of her mouth. On her cheek, a wetness sparkled as she leaned in.
Her finger landed on his lips. Her arms wrapped around his neck so hard he thought it might break. She went on a kissing rampage — his cheek, his forehead, his lips. Then his lips again. And again. Finally, she tilted back, her breathing heavy.
The stone-coldness ebbed from his fast-beating heart like a tidal wave returning to the ocean. “You mean you–? But what about Tom–?”
“Over with. Both Mama and Daddy flat-out ordered me not to marry him – right in front of him. Mama told him he wouldn’t be able to handle me.”
Josie took his wounded hand and held it on her knees. In her moist, impossibly blue eyes, stars shifted.
“Daddy explained why you couldn’t answer my letter. I feel so awful.” She cut off a sob.
“Mama pointed to your car across the street and yelled at me, ‘That brave, kind man’s still sitting in his car.’ And Daddy shouted, ‘He’s probably too heart-broken to leave. You get out there right this instant before he takes off.'”
Her hand soothed his. “I apologized to Tommy. He huffed off. I gave Mama and Daddy a quick hug because I was so happy. I waited a few seconds to give Tommy time to leave, then I went flying out, just in time to see you pulling away. Daddy came out on the porch with Mama and told me to get in his car.”
She dug into her purse, came up with a handkerchief. She blotted her eyes, sniffling and smiling. “I thought it was her purse Mama had with her, but it was mine.”
She traced a hand along his uniform sleeve. “Mr. James Farrow, I just proved to you I still have a very big crush on you. Now your turn. Prove to me you have a very big crush on me, or I’m getting right back out of here.”
“Oh?” He grinned and took her into his arms. “And walking home through this neighborhood all by yourself?”
“Hm. Somehow I forgot to tell you. Mama and Daddy didn’t leave. They’re parked several houses down. Won’t leave until we do. Daddy’s got a baseball bat and who knows what else in the car. Now get on with this, Mr. James Farrow.”
Her lips parted. In all his life, there had never been a single solitary thing as easy to prove.
Ten minutes — or was it 20? — went by. She nudged him away, taking a big, deep breath.
“Okay, okay, let’s quit before we grind our lips down and have to get new ones sewed on. Yes, Mr. James Farrow, you’ll never know how happy I am to finally see proof your crush on me is very big.”
He looked off into the night. “Josie, what you don’t know yet — I limp. I’m damn near a crip–”
“You’re my cripple. They told me. I’ll limp with you. We’ll go together like birds of a feather.”
She relocated his cap from the mirror to the back seat. “Okay, my handsome Army soldier, roll the wheels. Take your Electric Blue to the picture show. I want to see ‘Since You Went Away’ again. This time with you.”
She switched on the radio to a low volume. The Mills Brothers crooned, “You Always Hurt the One You Love.”
Before he put the car into gear, he couldn’t take his eyes off her as she looked at him and sang softly along with the Mills Brothers in a beautiful clear voice, “…The one you shouldn’t hurt at all.”
The Hudson glided along the dark streets, her hip pressing snug and soft against his. His wrapped hand rested in her palm on her knees.
“Tomorrow,” she said, “come by and tell me all about what happened over there. And about all those medals on your uni–“
“Oh, my fruit salad? Yeah, later, maybe much later.” He smiled. “But tomorrow’s a deal.”
“Wednesday night, let’s go see ‘Hollywood Canteen.’ And how about a picnic in the park Saturday afternoon? Sunday I’d like to see your mom and dad again. Next weekend, why don’t we go hunting on our property? Daddy’ll let me use his old Baretta. He’s nursed it like a baby. I’m more used to it than the rifle.”
James scratched his jaw, a big smile breaking apart his lips.
She lay her head on his shoulder. Her voice soft as a breeze in treetops, she said, ”And in the next day or so – or the next hour or so, if you want to – you can tell me when you plan to ask me if–“
She gave his uniform cuff a couple of quick tugs and straightened. “Never mind. Yes I will. How does three sound?”
“James Junior for the first boy?”
Could she see his grin? It had spread wider than a barn door. “Sarah or Margaret for the first girl?”
She was still a hoot. His hoot. His handful of gorgeous, lovable hoot.
He turned onto Main Street. The movie theater’s marquee lights splashed into view half a mile away.
What was life going to be like with her?
If the sarge knew her, he might answer, “After what you went through? Ha. A piece of cake. A wonderful, beautiful piece of cake with lots of delicious frosting on top. Hold on for the ride!”
Josie stood at her open front door and waved goodbye to her three children — Junior, Sarah, and Margaret — her five grandchildren, and her two great-grandchildren, one of them, Edna, now a teen.
Under roiling, iron-gray clouds, they all hurried into their SUVs to beat the storm. They pulled off, waving once more with big, tearful smiles. Edna’s sad face lingered at the window, her forehead pressed against the glass, her “Grandma Josie” eyes ablaze.
Junior and Sarah would return from Indianapolis in a few days to check on her.
Leaning on her cane more than usual, she stared out at the spot where their vehicles had been parked. Her shoulders sagged as if under a heavy weight. She couldn’t turn around. After three days of hugging, kissing, talking, reassurances, and attending-to, the dead quiet at her back sent an icy spider crawling up her spine.
“Oh, James, why did you leave me? Such a wonderful dream-marriage we had. And you just had to end it, didn’t you? Damn you.”
Fatigued and maneuvering with her cane against the worsening hip pain, she pushed the door shut and faced the silence.
She click-clacked from the tiled foyer into the living room. Pictures of her children and their families crowded the fireplace mantel. She delayed lifting her attention higher to the large black-and-white photo on the wall. The young Josie beamed in her mother’s flowing white wedding gown. Next to her stood her proud-looking, handsome James in his Army service uniform sporting his “fruit salad.”
“Damn you, damn you, damn you.” She banged her cane into the carpeting. A sharp pain cracked across her hand, knocking the wind out of her.
She shuffled into the bedroom, keeping her watering eyes on the beige carpeting. A full 30 seconds passed before she breathed in deeply, exhaled, and looked at James’s side of the bed, which was nearer the door so he could be “a firewall for you,” he’d said.
Her eyes and nose smarting, she moved to the dresser, her body stiff and rebellious. In the mirror her wrinkled, ashen face peered back at her. Her electric blueness twinkled through her tears. Tongues may have wagged behind her back about her youngish, beautiful eyes being incongruous for her age, and they might have done the same about her hair, which both she and James had never wanted cut short.
But she didn’t live for other people, only for herself and James, other people’s ideas be damned.
On the dresser, between a picture of her children at young ages and one of her and James — she in his lap and arms around his neck — lay the clipping from today’s Trinity Journal that Sarah had given her. Fingers trembling, she picked it up and read it once more. Her whole body shook.
She opened the dresser’s top left drawer and took out the envelope containing her two letters, the one she’d written three days earlier before everyone arrived, and the other she’d written 74 years ago.
She removed the yellowed old letter. It was as brittle and ravaged by time as she’d become. She closed the envelope and propped it against the mirror.
She pushed the letter into a hip pocket and limp-hopped to the old record player in the corner of the bedroom. After leaning her cane against the wall, she pulled an ancient vinyl record out of its tattered sleeve and dropped it over the spindle. She switched on the player and with both hands set the needle down on the spinning record, her shakiness requiring two efforts. The burst of sizzles and pops expelled the room’s hush. It always reminded her of a fire snapping in the fireplace.
She shuffled backward in baby steps and sat down on James’s side of the bed.
She sighed, giving in to the heaviness in her chest. She took out her old letter and unfolded it. With each twist of her veiny, spotted hands, her arthritis exacted its pound of flesh.
The Mills Brothers sang, “You always hurt the one you love…”
She began reading.
They had maintained their very big crushes on each other over all those years. Oh, they’d had their squabbles, of course, but who didn’t? And the squabbles had sometimes hurt. But that was only because she and James had been so in love, so important to each other. Only important people you love can hurt you. Knowing this, they had held together, nourishing and keeping alive their very big crushes on each other.
“If I broke your heart last night, It’s because I love you most of all.”
They had turned their marriage into a wonderful, beautiful piece of cake with lots of delicious frosting on top, just as James told her Sgt. Combs would have predicted decades ago.
She laid her letter on the middle of the bed. She pulled open James’s nightstand drawer. Using both hands, she lifted out the loaded Luger Tony Moretti’s widow in the late ’80s had brought all the way from New York City to give to James.
She shifted the Luger to one hand and lay down on her back. The familiar, lovely scent of James quickened her breath. She thumbed the safety. Sharp pain ruptured through her knuckle. She wiped at her tears using her free hand and picked up the letter she’d written so long ago. She reread every word as if for the first time, then brought the paper to her lips, feeling her heart glowing. Smiling at James’s face floating in front of her, she gave the letter a very big crush against her chest.
“Your Electric Blue waited for you, Mr. James Farrow, my wonderful Army soldier. So glad I did.”
Her eyes, fixed on the ceiling, saw only her husband. His arms embraced her. His lips pressed into hers. In 1944. In his Hudson, where they heard….
“…You always hurt the one you love, the one you shouldn’t hurt at all….”
Lightning cracked and lit up the room as if the sun had burst through the window. Thunder rumbled, fierce and long, rattling the panes. As rain raged against the roof, her lips trembled.
She turned her head and looked at the pictures of James and their children on the dresser. She could barely make them out, so flooded were her eyes.
Even her loving children and grandchildren would never be able to heal her broken heart.