Authors: Barbara Bretton
Tags: #World War II, #Women-HomeFront, #Romance
He gestured, palms outward. “You think you got the market cornered on apologies?”
She smiled for the first time that day. “I guess not.”
“I acted like a jerk last night.”
“Yes, you did.” She fiddled with the band of her watch, aware of how little she actually understood about him.
“You meant well.”
“But I can’t take you up on it.”
She nodded. “I understand.”
He leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees. “I don’t think so.”
“Does it matter, Johnny? Your mind’s made up. There’s nothing I can do to change it. You told me that last night.”
He broke eye contact, his gaze drifting toward the window. Any hope that he’d had a change of heart disappeared. Sighing, she was about to reach for the stack of papers she’d pushed aside when Eddie showed up in her doorway for the second time that morning.
“I think I blew it.” He glanced over at Johnny, then, obviously decided to ignore him. “Barnes is on the warpath.”
Catherine’s stomach knotted. “What happened?”
Eddie stepped into the room, his back still to the other man. “Remember those grievances you wanted me to talk to him about? Well, I tried to deal with the men on their level but no dice. They told me—” He cast a quick glance over his shoulder at Johnny. “Let’s just say I’m not the guy they want to talk to.”
More than that, Eddie had infuriated the men, and Wilson Manufacturing now teetered on the brink of a major strike. She didn’t know whether to cry or to grab Eddie and throttle him. Instead she sifted through the papers on her desk, searching for the key to avoid a work stoppage. “Like it nor not, they’ll have to deal with me.” She pushed her chair back and stood. “I’m going to—”
“I can do it.”
Both Catherine and Eddie turned to stare at Johnny, who stared calmly back at them.
“You’re kidding.” Eddie’s voice had a nasty tone.
Johnny ignored him. His eyes met and held Catherine’s. “I’ve listened to what you have to say and I understand. Give me five minutes to look at your notes and I’ll go down there and talk to the guys.”
“I don’t know...” Why on earth would Johnny think he could succeed where she and Eddie had failed?
“Look.” Johnny rose to his feet. “I know these guys. I grew up with guys like that.” He shot Eddie a look Catherine didn’t particularly like, but Eddie kept his own gaze fastened on the view from the window. “I speak their language.”
Catherine felt her resolve weaken. “Do you really think they’ll listen?”
“I can’t make any promises.”
Eddie snorted. “Why is it that doesn’t surprise me?”
“Eddie,” she snapped. “Let’s listen to what Johnny has to say.” She focused her attention back on the soldier. “You’re sure you want to do this? Last night you made your feelings very clear.”
He brushed her words aside. “Last night was last night. I can do this for you, Cathy.”
It didn’t take more than a second for her to make up her mind. The situation was dire. She doubted if anything he did could make it any worse. Besides, she had a sneaking suspicion he just might be the ace up her sleeve.
“Okay.” She extended her right hand. “You’re on.”
They shook on it while Eddie mumbled something ominous from the doorway. She handed Johnny the papers, gave him a brief rundown on the current situation.
“Am I missing anything, Eddie?”
Unfortunately Eddie was no longer there.
“He stormed out a few minutes ago,” said Johnny.
“Oh.” She couldn’t waste time worrying about Eddie’s fits of pique. There were more important issues at hand. “I’ll take you into the factory and introduce you to Harry.”
“No. If you do that, you’ll ruin everything. This has to be clean or you don’t stand a chance of smoothing the rough spots.”
She told him where to find Harry Barnes, then sat down to wait.
* * *
So all Catherine’s talk was a lie.
She’d said Wilson Manufacturing was like one big family and in a way she was right. It was one big family, all right. A loud and angry family, hell-bent on tearing itself apart from the inside. Catherine and that 4-F, Eddie Martin, might know how to deal with the government and suppliers, but they didn’t know a damn thing about dealing with men who made a living working with their hands.
But Johnny did.
That afternoon he spoke to them from the heart, the Brooklyn kid still struggling to make good. Sure it helped that his story had preceded him. Tom Wilson was held in high esteem by his employees; his daughter was, as well, but not for the same reasons. They admired Cathy’s spirit, the way she had jumped into the fray, determined to hold the company together—no matter the cost—until her dad came home and took over again. Harry Barnes and his pals didn’t give a hang about the bottom line or productivity. What they cared about was a weekly paycheck big enough to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables.
Johnny understood and it came across. Barnes backed off on the idea of a walkout. Cathy gave an inch or two on their demands. Johnny was able to walk between the two enemy camps and keep them talking to each other. The walkout was tabled for the time being, and it seemed apparent to everybody that it was all Johnny’s doing.
When he returned to Catherine’s office she was standing by the window, her delicate profile silhouetted against the winter sunlight that streamed through the panes of glass. She turned to face him, and for an instant he couldn’t quite draw a steady breath.
“Well?” She sounded jittery, apprehensive.
His fingers flashed the victory sign, which Winston Churchill had made so popular on the home front. “They’re going to keep working.”
She exhaled slowly and he watched, mesmerized, as the apprehension on her face turned to pleasure. “Well, what do you know, Johnny Danza. We’re in your debt again.” There was an edge to both her voice and her smile that only an idiot would have missed. “Would you be offended if I bought you lunch?”
“Yes.” What the heck, he might as well go for broke this time around. “If you’re with me, I pay.”
She nodded. “I thought you’d say that.”
She wanted to offer him a job at Wilson, but was afraid he’d blow up at her the way he had the night before.
He wanted her to offer him a job at Wilson, but couldn’t swallow his pride long enough to ask for one.
For an unsteady moment they watched each other, neither one sure what the other’s next move would be.
“Johnny, would you—”
“Cathy, about last night—”
They laughed nervously.
“Ladies first,” he said.
She had nothing to lose. “I’m in trouble here, Johnny. I need your help. They won’t talk to a woman the way they’ll talk to you. Would you reconsider working here at Wilson?”
“Yes, you’ll reconsider?”
Quit being cute, Danza
, he thought.
Don’t let her get away from you
. “Yes, I’ll take the job.”
She put out her hand and they shook on it—maybe for an instant longer than necessary, but neither one acknowledged that fact. Though she felt funny talking about wages with Johnny, she threw out a number and he nodded.
“Sounds fair,” he said.
She agreed, even though she knew there wasn’t enough money in the world to repay him for all he’d done for the Wilson family. “You’ll have to fill out some papers,” she said, almost apologetically. “Quite a few of them actually.”
“Can’t be as many as I filled out for Uncle Sam.”
“Miriam will get you started.” She told him where to find the personnel manager.
“Sounds great,” he said, meeting her eyes.
She ducked her head for an instant. “Well,” she said, “I guess I’d better get back to work.”
He opened his mouth to say something but thought better of it. “See you at home.”
“Yes,” she said smiling. “I’ll see you at home.”
Whistling, he headed down the hallway to find Miriam.
The factory was no place for a woman like Catherine, but it was the place where Johnny belonged.
March 1, 1945
The newspapers are filled with the latest bombing of Tokyo. They say the Pacific Fleet’s been attacking Japanese convoys. I couldn’t sleep at all last night, worrying that you might be in danger.
Doesn’t everything seem to be happening at once? Uncle Les isn’t very happy about the meeting President Roosevelt had at Yalta with Churchill and Stalin. Uncle Les says we shouldn’t trust the Russians, but I can’t imagine that they would ever do anything to hurt us. If we can’t trust our Allies, who can we trust?
Maybe I’m just getting nervous, Gerry. I don’t understand a lot about battles and strategy, but even I can see that this time the end really is right around the corner. For three years almost you’ve lived right here inside my head. Your voice is
voice. I have that picture of you from your high-school graduation, from back before you joined the navy. I bet you don’t even look that way anymore.
I’m scared, Gerry. I know I love you, the person you are deep inside, but what if I don’t measure up to the me you’ve created inside your head? What if you decide you don’t really like girls with red hair and freckles? What if I’m taller than you thought or uglier? What if you don’t like my New York accent?
I know we agree on the big things, like being Catholic and having a houseful of children and loving each other forever and ever, but what about the little things? I want a dog, a big beautiful collie like Lassie. I want a house somewhere that isn’t here. I can’t imagine spending my whole life in Forest Hills when there’s a great big world out there to discover. Mom loves knowing things will be the same day after day after day, and I know Cathy would be happy to spend her whole life right here, too. I want something more, Gerry. I want something that’s all ours. Something that isn’t like anything anyone has ever had before.
With all my love,
March 1945 brought with it more changes.
The marines won a bloody victory claiming Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima. The cost for Americans was high, but Old Glory once again flew on the mountaintop.
General MacArthur returned to a freed Manila, the “Pearl of the Orient,” and swore that no enemy would ever displace the Stars and Stripes.
James Byrnes, head of the Office of War Mobilization, announced that 600,000 civilians had left the defense industry in 1944. Most had taken jobs in nonessential industries; some no longer worked at all. Byrnes declared they must return to war plants immediately. Now wasn’t the time to ease the pressure on the enemy; now was the time to knuckle down and continue the fight. New signs joined the Loose Lips Sink Ships posters on the walls at Wilson Manufacturing. One was particularly effective in combating absenteeism: a picture of a well-scrubbed, wholesome young soldier in uniform and the words “This Soldier May Die—Unless You Man this Idle Machine.”
A letter came from Tom. A letter filled with certainty that he’d be home before the year was over. “The Nazis are on the run,” he wrote. “The good guys are going to come out on top, you’ll see....” No one seemed to notice the air of desperation that permeated his words. Dot lived for her work at the hospital, for her family, and for the day when her beloved husband would come back home and life would get back to normal.
Nancy and Gerry continued their long-distance courtship. Of course, nobody took her seriously, and her engagement to the young navy man was all but ignored. How could she possibly know what she was doing, falling in love with a boy she’d never even met? Once the war was over she’d come to her senses and fall in love with somebody she’d at least laid eyes on.
And then there was Catherine. Life at Wilson Manufacturing was as bumpy as a night flight over Tokyo. Eddie Martin’s fruitless quest for acceptance into the military had taken its toll on him. More often than not he showed up for work on Monday mornings with a black eye and a brutal hangover. The bruises faded; his anger, unfortunately, did not.
The long hard hours necessary to keep a defense plant at maximum productivity no longer appealed to workers eager for some free time to spend the money they’d been making. You could almost smell victory in the wind. Before long it would be time to stop making metal parts for tanks and battleships and start gearing up for peacetime production in what promised to be a time of booming prosperity.
Oh yes, Catherine knew it was time to start thinking about the future.
And every time she did, it seemed her mind turned to thoughts of Johnny Danza.
Johnny had settled into life at the plant as easily as he had settled into life at home. The men liked him; the women adored him. Only Eddie seemed to find fault with his performance. Johnny knew when to roll up his sleeves and pitch in. He knew when to stand toe-to-toe with Barnes and lay down the law. And he certainly had no problem storming into Catherine’s office when he felt she was being unfair to her employees.
His intentions to move out of the Wilson home had been honorable, but the housing shortage had conspired against him. When Dot offered him their finished basement, he had no choice but to accept. “I’ll pay the going rate,” he’d insisted, all male pride and bravado. “Not a cent less.”
Cathy’s heart had swelled with emotions she didn’t dare put a name to. She couldn’t imagine not having Johnny around the house. The sound of his voice, the sight of him across the dinner table at night, the touch of his hand against her elbow as he ushered her into the train as they rode to work in the morning... Had there even been a time when Johnny wasn’t part of her life?
Sometimes late at night she’d lie awake in her narrow bed, restless, tangled in the sheets, painfully aware that his long sinewy body had once rested in that same spot. Now and again she could almost convince herself that his scent lingered in the pillow. The memory of how he had felt beneath her hands tormented her. Christmas Eve she had washed that broad chest, his muscled back, let her gaze linger over his flat abdomen...
She was a bundle of conflicting emotions, yearning toward what she knew she could never have. They were so different, she and Johnny, so impossibly different in every way you could possibly list. And yet the connection was there, the attraction.
Or was it?
That kiss on New Year’s Eve had shattered her defenses. But apparently it had meant little to Johnny because not once had he attempted to kiss her again. And, God knew, she had given him ample opportunity!
The Weavers tossed themselves a thirtieth anniversary party on St. Patrick’s Day. Catherine and Johnny didn’t go to the party as a couple, but they did arrive at the same time and leave at the same time, and they did spend all the time in between talking and laughing together. But still no kiss.
Catherine stared in the mirror and experimented with new hairstyles and different shades of lipstick. But Johnny didn’t seem to notice.
Or worse, maybe he didn’t care.
Maybe she wasn’t his type. The thought struck terror into her heart. Maybe all this time she’d been fooling herself into believing he cared for her as a woman, not as a little sister. The awful realization that he might care for her the same way he cared for Nancy brought tears to her eyes, and as March drew to a close, she struggled to keep her emotions safely locked inside her heart.
* * *
It was the first Saturday in April, the kind of day you threw open the windows and let the gentle fragrant breezes clean house. Nancy had gone shopping at Macy’s with her best friend. Dot was busy scrubbing the kitchen floor while she sang along with the radio. “My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time” was her favorite song and it seemed to symbolize the wave of optimism she and most Americans were riding.
Catherine had awakened early, filled with energy. She’d slipped into a pair of dungarees and an old shirt of her father’s, then headed out into the backyard, determined to get a head start on preparing the small plot of land they used for a Victory Garden. Last year she’d been drowning in a sea of sorrow, unable to look around and see the trees budding and hear the birds singing—all the clichéd and wonderful signs of the earth renewing itself once again.
She was wrist-deep in weeds when she heard a familiar voice behind her.
“Isn’t it a little early in the year to plant?”
Shielding her eyes with the back of her hand, she turned and looked up at Johnny. “It’s never too early to be prepared. There’s a lot to be done before Mom plants her vegetable garden. I thought I’d pull my own weight this year for a change.”
He nodded as if what she’d said made perfect sense to him.
She laughed and tossed a clump of dandelion at him. “You know you Brooklyn boys don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. Where did you think all your canned vegetables came from?” Canned vegetables were shipped to the front while civilians turned to their Victory Gardens for fresh products.
He brushed the toe of his right shoe against the rake and hoe lying on the ground by her side. “I was stationed in Kansas before the war. Learned the world wasn’t all glass and concrete.”
“Nature boy, huh?” She grinned and motioned toward the gardening equipment next to her. “Grab yourself a rake and refresh your memory.”
He hesitated and she instantly felt contrite.
“Look,” she said, scrambling to her feet and brushing the dirt from her knees, “I don’t mean to sound like I’m barking out orders. I guess it’s a holdover from the factory.”
“Good,” he said, sticking his hands into his pants pockets. “So you don’t have to stick around?”
She shook her head. What on earth was he driving at, anyway? “No. I just thought I’d get a head start on the Victory Garden.”
“I was thinking we could take the train into Manhattan, walk around Central Park, maybe take in a show, dinner...” His words trailed off. “What do you say?”
“I says it sounds absolutely wonderful.”
The look of happiness on his face thrilled her. “Can you be ready around noon?”
“You bet!” She extended her hand and he helped her to her feet. “I’d better go change.”
He made a show of inspecting her muddy jeans and threadbare shirt. “I think you look pretty cute the way you are.”
“Very funny.” She waggled her dusty gloves at him. “I’ll meet you at noon in front of the house.”
She burst into the kitchen in a whirl of excitement.
“What on earth?” Dot spun around from the icebox she was defrosting. Pans of hot water and soggy newspapers were piled up on her freshly washed floor. “Make a paste of baking soda and water. I’ll pull out the stinger!”
Catherine, who was yanking off her soggy loafers, started to laugh. “I haven’t been stung by a bee, Mother.”
Dot’s expression shifted from concern to blatant curiosity. “Then what’s all this commotion about? You look like you’ve been shot out of a cannon.”
It was impossible to contain her elation. “I’m going to spend the day in the city.”
Dot arched on eyebrow. “Oh, really?”
“Yes. I’m going for a walk in Central Park, maybe take in a show, dinner...” She tried to keep a straight face but failed miserably. “I’m going out on a date, Mom,” she said, bursting into laughter. “With Johnny!”
* * *
“You look beautiful, honey.” Dot’s eyes shone with pride ninety minutes later. “Like something out of a fashion magazine.”
Catherine looked at her reflection in the bedroom mirror and frowned. “Are you certain this dress doesn’t look its age?”
“Positive. With that belt it looks almost brand-new.”
Catherine studied herself carefully. The white belt set off her narrow waist and emphasized the graceful lines of the gently flaring skirt that came just at the middle of her knee. The bodice fit snugly; the deep U-neckline bared her collarbone, while the short puffed sleeves narrowed in to a starched cuff a fraction above her elbow. It was the perfect springtime dress. Young and fresh and pastel pink with buttons shaped like rosebuds. With her white gloves and peekaboo hat, it could almost pass for something from
“Well,” she said, grabbing her purse from the dressing table, “I’m off.”
Dot gave her a big hug. “You have a wonderful time, honey.”
Catherine managed a nervous smile. “Are you sure I shouldn’t pin my hair up?”
Dot laughed and pushed her out the door. “Positive. You look beautiful with it down around your shoulders. You’re only young once, honey. Now go out and meet your young man.”
Johnny was pacing the sidewalk in front of the house. His hair was neatly combed and he wore dark gray trousers, cuffless thanks to the war effort, a white shirt and tie, and a suit jacket. He had filled out considerably since his return home, and she noted the way his shoulders strained the seams of his jacket as he raised a cigarette to his mouth. She’d seen him every single day for the past three months, but suddenly she felt as if he was a stranger. He turned and grinned at her as she started down the steps.
An extremely handsome stranger
“You look swell,” he said, stubbing out his cigarette on the sidewalk with the toe of his shoe.
“Thank you.” Her own feet, in her open-toed pumps, looked so small next to his. “So do you.”
He looked down at her. She looked up at him. He wouldn’t kiss her right there in the middle of Hansen Street, would he? He moved closer. Her breath caught. Instead of kissing her, he reached for her hand and they started down the block for the subway station. Outwardly she looked cool, calm and collected. Inwardly she felt like a giddy high-school girl on her first date.
Les was sweeping his front stoop and they waved as they strolled past. He had a great big smile on his face and Catherine suspected he was going to toss down his broom and run inside to tell Edna the news the moment she and Johnny disappeared around the corner. Maybe she didn’t look quite as cool and calm as she’d first thought.
The E train was noisy and crowded, and they amused themselves by reading the advertising placards that lined the walls of the car. “Lucky Strike Green Goes To War,” “Don’t be a public enemy! Be patriotic and smother sneezes with Kleenex to help keep colds from spreading to war workers,” and AT&T’s exhortation, “Joe needs long-distance lines tonight,” warning civilians to use the telephone only when absolutely necessary. Photos of beauty-queen contestants claimed a fair amount of wall space, and they took turns guessing who the winner of this month’s Miss Subways contest would be.
Every single day they rode this same train together, looked at the same advertisements without comment. Why did it all seem new today, new and wonderful and exciting?
They exited at Fifth Avenue and climbed the endless steps to street level where, to their amazement, they found flower vendors selling white gardenias and luscious purple orchids at “a special price just for you.”
Johnny purchased a white gardenia. He reached up and removed her peekaboo hat, then tucked the fragrant flower behind her ear. “Thank you,” she whispered, breathing deeply of the sweet smell. “It’s beautiful.”
He touched her cheek with the tip of his fingers. “So are you.”
They fell into an embarrassed—and delighted—silence and headed up Fifth Avenue. A few big yellow Checker cabs glided by, and huge double-decker buses rumbled past, but much of the traffic she remembered from pre-War years had disappeared thanks to gas rationing. Other than that it was easy to pretend there wasn’t a war going on, that this was the same graceful world that had existed before Pearl Harbor.
“Look at that beautiful dress,” she sighed as a tall brunette in ivory silk drifted by. “I’ll bet that cost thirty or forty dollars.”
Johnny did a double take. “Thirty dollars for a dress?” He shook his head. “Looks like I’ve been away longer than I thought.”
“She also had hose on,” Catherine said. “Just goes to show you that if you’re rich enough you can find anything you want.”
Johnny looked at her sharply. “You noticed all of that in two seconds?”
“You’d be surprised what a woman notices.” She was starved for fashion and feminine fripperies, more starved than even she had realized. “She was wearing a pearl choker, two circle pins, and the most cunning button earrings I’ve ever seen.”