Labor Day

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by Roland Howell

When James Stafford and Richard Evans walked through the hard slanting rain toward the door to the Yacht Club they could see two big sailboats secured in the guest dockings. They could see their stern flags straight out quivering in the northwest gale.

“The Canucks,” Stafford shouted. They hurried in the door, slipped off their jackets, shook them, hung them in the coat room, and went to stand in the doorway to the big dining area with the tables pushed to the edges leaving a clear center for dancing. A small band was set up in the far corner. The band was taking a break. The room was filled with grey-blue cigarette smoke and loud with talk and laughter. The party was well underway. It was Labor Day nineteen forty five. The war had just ended.

“How many of them in there are celebrating because they were in the war and are glad because they won’t have to fight anymore, Jimbo?” Rick asked.

“Maybe a few, who knows?” Jim replied. “Everybody’s got a right to be happy. So cut the “I fought and you didn’t crap.” It’s over. There’s a new world out there.”

“Yeah, new world,” Rick stopped there but Jim caught his brooding cynicism.

” Drop it, Rick.  Drop the dark shit and go with tonight. I’ve got a couple of nice things lined up for us.”

“Here? Like what?”

“ Two lovely ladies from out of the past, that’s what. Look around and see if you can locate two recognizable faces.”

Rick began to search the crowd when the band started to play. The drummer beat the cadence and the others came in with the pulsating rhythmic sounds of “Night Train”. Moments later “Doc” Johnson was on the floor. He began his routine of bumps and grinds. The crowd were all laughing and shouting.

Rick stopped looking for the girls and watched. “Christ, I hope he doesn’t start to strip,” he said to Jim, laughing. Doc ended by taking off his sweatshirt, twirling it over his head, flinging  it into the crowd, and taking a deep bow. Everyone was on their feet clapping. That’s when Rick saw the two girls. “Oh, hell, Jim,” he said.

“What’s the matter? “

“The girls, that’s what.”

“Relax , it’s just like it used to be, the four of us. I looked up Ellie soon after I got back. We picked up right where we left off. It was her idea to talk to Molly. When she told her you had just gotten out and were coming to visit me. Molly said she’d like to see you.”

“I thought she got married.”

“She did, some guy she met in Canada when she was at her parents cottage. He got killed over a year ago. He was with the Canadian Air Force.”

“Any kids?”

“No.”

“Are you sure Ellie told her you were bringing me here tonight?”

“Positive. Look Rick, Molly took her husband’s death pretty hard, Ellie told me. Lately she’s been getting past things. When Ellie told her I was bringing you tonight she asked Molly if she’d like to see you. Molly said yes. Hell, it’s like the old days, the four of us together again.”

“Ellie’s a little old matchmaker, how wonderful.”

Jim stared at Rick. “Look, Ellie and I thought it was something that might be good for the two of you, damn it,” he said. “Don’t screw things up. At least be polite for Christ’s sake.” Come on, they’ve seen us.” The two men walked into the room toward the girls.

Ellie’s eyes followed Jim. They smiled at each other. At the table Jim bent down and gave Ellie a kiss on the mouth and sat. Rick stood looking down at Molly thinking there had been a change. The cuteness was gone. She was an attractive woman now but he sensed with an edge.

She sat smiling up at him. “Hello, Rick. Sit down. I’m glad to see you,” Molly said.

Rick sat, leaned toward her and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “Good to see you too,” he responded.

Two men at a nearby table got up, walked over, and stood by Jim and Rick.

The short wiry one spoke first. “We tried to sit with your ladies a bit ago but they explained they were waitin’ for you lads. Tried to buy ‘em drinks, but no go. You’re lucky, they’re loyal. Bein’ gentlemen, we left, so fear not.” The short man stumbled and Jim reached out to steady him. “Oh, thanks Yank,” he said. “By the way my name’s Manny Smart and this big lad here’s Archey  Harper. ”

Jim and Rick stood up and the men shook hands. “You boys are shortly back from big number two, aren’t you?” Smart asked. Jim nodded but Rick looked away.

“It’s not hard to tell,” Harper said. “We all got a kind of look.”

“I guess so,” Jim answered.

“No better time to dump the look than now,” Smart said. “Good party goin’ on ‘ay. If you lads haven’t picked up on the accents yet, we’re Canadians. We sailed over from the Toronto Yacht Club yesterday afternoon before the blow. Archie and me are goin’ down to Rochester in the mornin’ if the weather breaks, Then we’ll party there and then it’s across to Coburg and on to home. A trip to purge the soul, don’t you know.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Jim replied. Archie kept casting glances at Rick.

The two Canadians gave a smiling wave and walked back to their table. Rick watched them go and noticed their pals at the table were laughing when they sat. “I’ve got to get out of here,” Rick declared.

“Why? What’s the matter,” Jim asked. The two girls looked at Rick.

“I’m not sure,” Rick answered. “Everything’s so loud and smoky. It’s the smoke. I can’t stand heavy smoke.”

Rick got up walked to the foyer, picked up his jacket, and opened the door. The wind and rain were still strong. It had gotten dark.

“I’ll go and see what’s wrong,” Jim said. “He can’t go anywhere. I’ve got the car keys.”

“No, you stay here. I’ll go talk to him,” Molly declared. She found Rick standing outside under the overhang to the door staring out into the rain. “What is it?” she asked.

“It’s nothing. I’m sorry.”

“It’s nasty out here Rick.  Don’t you want to go back inside?”

“No!”

“Wait here then. I’ll be back in a minute. Don’t go away into this rotten weather. Promise me. I’ll be right back.” Rick said nothing.

Molly hurried inside to Ellie and Jim. She noticed they both had drinks and there were two on the table for her and Rick. “Please give me the keys to the car,” she said to Ellie. “I’m going to take Rick over to the cottage. You stay here, have fun, and come later.”

“What the hell is the matter with him?” Ellie asked.

“Forget it, sweetheart,” Jim answered. “Give Molly your keys. We’ll take my car later.”

Ellie snatched the keys from her purse and handed them to Molly. “You sure you’ll be okay, Moll?” she asked.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be fine,” Molly answered.

She found Rick still standing outside the door. She grabbed his hand. “Come on,” she ordered. They hurried through the rain to an old black Buick sedan. Molly unlocked the car, got  behind the wheel and let Rick in the passenger side.

“Now what?” Rick asked.

“We’re going to the cottage where there is no noise and no smoke.”

“What cottage?”

“You’ll remember it.”

It was a short distance over the harbor bridge and up the gravel road to the cottage with the broad lawn that went to the sandy beach. As they hurried inside they could hear the faint sound of the music coming from the yacht club back across the harbor. Rick remembered the place, all right, but he said nothing. He took off his jacket and looked at Molly and realized she had no slicker and was soaking wet. “Damn it, Molly, I’m sorry. You’re soaked,” he said. “I should have given you my Jacket.”

“You had other things on your mind.  Don’t worry, I’ll go in the other room and change into something dry,” she said. “There’s a fire laid in the fireplace. Light it, matches are on the mantle. It’ll get the damp chill out of here. Check the draught first. We don’t want any smoke.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he answered with a salute. Molly gave him a wry smile and shook her head. She may look different but that part hasn’t changed, he thought.

When Molly came back she was wrapped in a terry cloth robe. The fire was underway. “Want a beer?” she asked.

“Yeah, please,” he answered.

Molly came back from the kitchen carrying  two bottles of Millers beer.  “My beer,” Rick said, smiling.

“I’ve got a long memory,” Molly replied. “A memory about beer and this place with you and me and Jim and Ellie four years ago. What about you?”

“I remember.”

“What do you remember? How much of that night do you remember?”

“I remember the four of us swimming naked in the warm surf and afterwards, our first time in that bedroom.” Rick nodded toward an open doorway at the beginning of the hall. Where the hell are you going with this Molly?”

“That’s up to you.”

“Slow down. I want to ask about your husband. Jim told me he was a pilot in the Canadian Air Force and he had been killed. I’m sorry for you. Tell me about you and him and how it has been for you since you found out.” Rick paused a moment. “If you want to that is.”

“Quick resume, Richard,” Molly began. “I met him at a dance in Peterborough. He was handsome, tall, blond and a trained fighter pilot. Two weeks after we met we got married in a quiet civil ceremony. Ellie was visiting and she stood up for me. One of Ted’s pilot friends was best man. Ted was a very intelligent thoughtful person. He was also a great lover who was shipped off to England ten days after our wedding. He wrote several lovely letters. I replied and waited. Six months after he left I received a condolence from the Canadian military. The end.”

Rick sat sipping his beer, looking at Molly all the time she told him. “I’m very sorry for you,” he said.

“Are you?” Molly asked.

“Of course, why do you ask such a thing?”

“Because I’ve stopped felling sorry for myself, so you can too. It’s you and me again, right now at least, unless you’re with someone else.

Rick sat quiet watching the fire. “Well, are you?” Molly asked.

“No”.

“Good because right now, tonight, I need you. I want to sleep with you. I haven’t been with a man since Ted.”

“I guess I should be flattered and right now you’re turning me on.” Rick confessed. “But, there’s a little problem. I don’t have a condom and I don’t want anything to happen to complicate either of our lives.”

Molly shook her head. “I thought all you guys in the service were prepared. But, remembering you, I’m not surprised.” She reached in the pocket of her robe, pulled out a little round package, and gave it to Rick. “Bedtime, lover,” she said.

Rick laughed. “Ah! Helen of Troy has her Trojan and I’m to be Paris for the night.” he said. “I only hope I don’t meet his ultimate fate.”

“Oh, for God’s sake Rick, stop your damn literary allusions. Your back from the war, you’re not wounded, and you don’t have an abandoned wife to let you die. There, see I read Homer’s “Odyssey” first year in college.

That was Homer’s “Iliad”,” Rick retorted.

“Oh, shut up,” Molly snapped. She stood up and pulled Rick up to her. She opened the front of her gown and pressed herself against him and whispered in his ear. “I’m going to the bathroom and then to bed,” she whispered. Put a couple of logs on the fire, fix the screen, use the bathroom, and join me.” Rick nodded and did as he was told.

The sun was well up when Molly awoke. She could see it was a quiet bright morning. She reached out to Rick but his place next to her was empty. She called his name but got no response. She got out of bed and slipped on her robe. The morning air was cool and as she stepped through the bedroom door she could smell coffee. The door to the second bedroom was ajar and she peeked in at Jim and Ellie still sleeping. When she went into the living room she could see Rick dressed and standing on the cantilevered deck overlooking the harbor. He was sipping from a mug of coffee and watching the two Canadian sailboats, powering out the channel, beginning to hoist sails as they went. She pulled her bathrobe tight around her and went to join him.

“Good morning, lover man,” she purred. “What’s going on?”

“Watching the Canadians set sail. That’s the Canucks for you. Party late, hangover, or whatever, when it’s time to sail they’re on the go. You’ve got to admire them.”

“Yes,” Molly answered. “It’s a Canadian trait. I’m an expert on how Canadians are”.

“Sorry, Molly, I didn’t think. “

“Forget it, Richard, no apology is necessary. —  I see you found the coffee.”

“Yeah, all set up in the coffeemaker. I just had to turn it on. You and Ellie are great hostesses.” Rick’s tone sounded cynical.

“We try to be thoughtful girls. Is that a problem for you?” Molly challenged.

“No, it just shows good planning that’s all, like the fire all set, Miller’s beer cooling in the refrigerator, the two new toothbrushes laid out in the bathroom, and— the convenient Trojan last night.”

“Damn it, don’t spoil things. It was no dirty seduction. It was something I needed and wanted with you and you certainly responded like it all went well for you too.

Rick’s eyes left the harbor, with the Canadian sailboats almost into the lake, and fixed on Molly’s face. He noticed her eyes were misting. “Last night was great,” he began. “But it can’t go anywhere. I’m not the same person I was when we were together before.”

“Maybe you’re even a better person, more mature. I don’t expect any long term thing. I’m going back to Ithaca in a week and finish college and get my degree a year from next January.

“In what?”

“Elementary education, I want to teach. What are you going to do?”

“I’m not sure, go back to Iowa and stay with my folks awhile, get a job, I guess, and save some money. “I’m eligible for the GI bill education benefits. I’m thinking about journalism or working into that writing program at Iowa if I can get in. I need a little time to myself before any of that.”

For several moments they said nothing. Molly spoke first. “After your father was transferred to Iowa Ellie’s parents kept in touch with your parents. They told them you were missing in action and they were worried and the air force told them your plane was shot down and it was possible you were a prisoner of war. Ellie wrote this to me when I was in Canada.”

Rick’s reply was stern. “I was never a prisoner of war,” he snapped.

Molly waited but he offered no more. She studied him, wondered, and then asked him. “Who is Annie?”

“What?”

“Who is Annie? You began mumbling her name in your sleep, repeating it several times,  then saying thank you over and over. I asked you what was wrong. I thought you were awake but you were still asleep. Then you stopped.”

Rick refocused on the Canadian sailboats, clearing into the lake now sails set on a broad reach to the north northeast. He gave no response.

“Forget I asked,” Molly said.

Still watching the sailboats, Rick explained. “We were coming back from a bombing raid in Germany when our plane was hit by something, it filled with smoke and was on fire. Some of us were able to bail out. It was night. I landed away from the others near an apple orchard. A young Dutch girl saw my parachute come down and found me. The Germans were all over the area retreating toward the Rhine. She and her family hid me for four days before some English troops secured the area and I got back to England. The Dutch girl was called Annie. She helped saved my life. It’s been hard to forget her, I guess. That’s it.— Sorry if I disturbed your sleep.”

Molly asked it and then wished she had bit her tongue. “Were you and Annie lovers?”

“For God’s sake Molly, she was barely twelve years old.”

“Oh, that was a terrible thing for me to ask, I’m sorry, Rick. It was none of my business.”

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t discuss any of what I told you with any one, Molly, not even Jim or Ellie.”

“I won’t. I promise,” she assured him. Molly saw a flash of distress in Rick’s eyes. She wanted to change the ambience. “I’m going to go in and make some breakfast for us. You stay here in the fresh air. How about scrambled eggs and Canadian bacon?” she asked. “I’ll call you when things are ready.”

“That’s fine,” Rick answered. He tried to remember whether that was what they ate four years ago. Then he forgot about four years ago and began to remember the full story of his time in Holland, the things that had kept coming in flashbacks. It was all with him now, together and linear, as he watched the white sails of the two sailboats now half way to the horizon.

The plane had filled with thick smoke and going down. He and two others got out, parachuting into the twilight, with him coming down separated from the others, coming down in a clearing next to an orchard, twisting his right ankle badly, lying there several minutes, chilled in the mid November air, ankle aching, thinking he should get up and bury the parachute, when looking up, and saw a young girl in the fading light looking down at him. Suddenly she ran away beyond an old barn toward the outline of a house. He tried to stand but he was unable to put full weight on the ankle and fell. He sat on the ground for several minutes, looking at the barn, thinking. Two figures were coming, moving in the dusk, nearing the barn, one short the other tall. The girl must have gone to bring an adult, but who, he wondered. He saw the girl go into the barn but the adult kept walking toward him. He could tell it was a man, a tall man who came and looked down at him. He felt helpless until the man spoke to him in English. “Don’t worry, I can see you are an American. We will help you. Are you injured?

”Yes, my right ankle. I can stand on one leg but not walk.”

“Try to get up and I will help you over into the orchard where you will be better hidden while I get rid of your parachute. Stay quiet and I will return and take you to a safer place. There are Germans in the area.”

The man rolled the parachute into a ball and cinched it tight with the harness. He took it to the barn and a few minutes later came back to the orchard. “Give me your hand and I will help you up to stand on your good leg,” he said and they started slowly to the barn, his arm over the man’s shoulder hopping on his left leg. Inside the barn they went behind a long partition to an abandoned horse stall piled high with hay. The man took him around the pile where the girl was spreading some hay out to make him a bed. A small pile of apples sat nearby. The man eased him down on the bed of hay and explained.

“We will not exchange names. I am in the Dutch resistance. Your parachute is hidden in the pile of hay. If the Germans find you, you must tell them you dragged yourself to this barn and the people living in the house do not know you are here. Eat two  apples each day and leave the cores to show how you kept alive. Tell them you found them in the grass by the orchard. I have given my daughter the false name of Annie. She will bring you some water and a small portion of food each night after darkness and call the name Annie when she is in the barn. Our family has learned English. I have kept contact with British forces by radio. They should be in our area in three or four days. There will either be a battle or the Germans may retreat first.” The man and the girl left abruptly. When he lay back he realized the girl had gathered a pile of hay to be his pillow.

For the next three nights he heard the girl call Annie to him and come with a small basket of food and water. She would wait while he ate and drank and, when he finished, gather the small plate and glass, tell him not to worry she would help keep him safe, and scurry away. The fourth night the girl told him the British were only a few miles away and the Germans were moving out taking some hostages and her father would not let her come back until it was safe. She bent down and gave him a kiss on his fore-head.  “I will pray for you,” she said and ran off.

On the morning of the fifth day he heard brief sound of fighting and then no more shooting and then he looked up at two English soldiers staring at him and his uniform asking “Who the hell are you mate?” then helping him up, taking him to a British officer standing by the house where Annie lived, one of the soldiers telling the Major, “Found him in the barn, Sir, his ankle might be broke. Says he’s American. Says he bailed out of his bomber before it crashed.”  The Major studied him a few moments before speaking. “We’ll get you back to a medical station and see about returning you to your unit in England. He told the Major he had to speak to someone in the house, to thank them for helping him. The Major shook his head. “There is no one in the house Lieutenant, we’ve searched it thoroughly,” He insisted there had to be, there was a girl he needed to thank, and the Major gave him a quick look and smiled and said, “your girl has gone, Lieutenant. In war there are always other girls,” Then he ordered the soldiers to, “take the Lieutenant back to the medics about his ankle.” Being led away he shouted back at the Major that he had not been that way with the girl, she was only twelve, and the Major waved his arm and turned away.

Back in England he was told the two others who had jumped with him were dead. One broke his neck landing in a tree. The other was captured and shot by the Germans. The rest were killed in the crash. He was the only survivor. He had wondered if the Germans had taken Annie and her family, maybe killed them, or maybe they had fled and hidden and were safe. He could not stopped wondering.

Standing on the deck looking out at the lake he remembered how the English radio had been constant with Vera Lynn’s song about “some sunny day we’ll meet again, don’t know where or don’t know when”, something like that. It was certain he would never meet any of his bomber crew again. He pictured each one of them in his mind. Then closed his eyes and  visualized  Annie standing looking at him lying on the ground by the orchard and running to get help and coming from her house, each night in the darkness with food and water and the last night with her kiss telling him he would be in her prayers. Then he opened his eyes to reality. “The God damn war”, he muttered.

The Canadian sailboats were white specks at the horizon, almost gone now. He wondered how many others came away from the war feeling different, fighting depressing memories, telling no one, trying hard to tuck them away in some dead part of the mind. Molly’s voice broke his thoughts. “Breakfast is ready,” she called.

He walked into the kitchen. “Smells good,” he said speaking through a forced smile.

copyright

 

Copyright 2009 Roland Howell