Authors: Barbara Bretton
Tags: #World War II, #Women-HomeFront, #Romance
Her voice echoed throughout the empty house, and for a minute she wished she had stayed back at the office and worked on the production schedule for 1945.
“Wonderful,” she said aloud as she padded barefoot to the kitchen. “The only other person who likes to work on Christmas Eve is Ebenezer Scrooge.”
The kitchen was as quiet as the rest of the house. A covered pot of soup sat on the front burner and a note rested against a plate of freshly baked bread.
Your sister and I have gone off to serve Christmas Eve dinner at the hospital. We’ll be home in time for supper. Get some rest!
P.S. Remember midnight mass tonight with Edna and Les!
She made quick work of the soup and devoured two slices of bread as if she were famished. Truth was she had hoped the simple fare would fill the emptiness inside her, but that emptiness couldn’t be satisfied with food. She wished her mother and Nancy were home, chattering and laughing and turning the house into a home. A long time ago Catherine had known how to do that sort of thing, but it was a skill she had forgotten. Married women were good at turning on the lamps and drawing the drapes and doing whatever magical things it was they did to make four walls into a haven.
Young girls were good at that, too. Girls like Nancy who believed in love and happily-ever-after and that good things happened to good people, no matter how hard the world tried to tell them otherwise.
But Catherine was no longer a girl, and fate had seen to it that she hadn’t become a wife.
“I never should have had that eggnog,” she muttered as she finished washing her lunch dishes and putting them away. Alcohol went straight to her head, and that spike of rum had obviously been enough to release a flood of melancholy emotions better left hidden.
She tidied up the kitchen and wandered into the living room. The heavily carved mahogany furniture glistened with lemon oil, and the scent mingled with that of cinnamon and bayberry. The tree, a beautiful pine, occupied a place of honor near the picture window, waiting for evening when the Wilson women would transform it into a thing of beauty. In the old days they would invite everyone on the block—from the Weavers to the Lewises to the Fiores—to join them as they strung popcorn garlands and sang carols and draped tinsel on the welcoming branches.
Thanks to the war, of course, everything was different now. It was hard to celebrate Christmas with the same excitement, what with Douglas gone and her dad somewhere far away. Last year Johnny Danza had written to her, telling Catherine of the USO show and a first-run movie they’d watched by the light of a December moon.
She looked out the dining-room window and shivered. The sky was the color of heavy cream and the falling snow had already obliterated her footprints from the path to the front door. The postman had already delivered a batch of Christmas cards and, given the weather, it was unlikely he’d be back to make a second delivery. “A white Christmas,” she whispered, her breath fogging the glass. How she wished there was something to celebrate, some sign that the war would end and those she loved would come home safe and sound.
The grandfather clock in the foyer announced the hour. Three o’clock. Her mother and Nancy wouldn’t be home for hours. An endless afternoon stretched out before her, as bleak as the weather.
* * *
“You okay, pal?” The cabbie peered at his passenger through the rearview mirror. “You don’t look so good.”
The man’s face was as white as the snow blanketing the city streets.
“I’m fine,” the soldier mumbled, his voice muffled by his upturned collar.
The cabbie hung a left at the corner of Queens Boulevard and Seventy-first Avenue. “Now what was that address you wanted?”
“Hansen,” the soldier managed. “Seventy-fifteen. One of those Tudor jobs.”
The cabbie laughed and clamped his teeth more tightly around his cigar. “They’re all Tudor jobs in that neck of the woods, kid. You gotta have some dough to live there.” He took another look at the soldier. “When was the last time you had a good meal?”
The soldier turned green around the gills. “Just drive, would you?”
“Hangover is it?” The cabbie eased off the gas. “Don’t worry, old pal. I’ll get you home in time to trim the Christmas tree....”
* * *
Catherine frowned and buried her face more deeply into the sofa pillow. Who on earth was making that racket? Didn’t they know people were trying to sleep?
She squeezed her eyes tight and tried to conjure up the dream once again. It was Christmas Day and President Roosevelt came on the radio and announced that the war was over. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, the doorbell was ringing—
Wait a minute.
She opened one eye and listened closely. “Must have been my imagination,” she said, then pulled the afghan up over her shoulders. But then there was the noise again, only it wasn’t a doorbell ringing. No, it was more like a faint tapping.
She threw back the afghan and sat up, yawning. Maybe the mailman had made it back through the snow, after all, with one last batch of Christmas cards. And maybe this batch would bring the long-awaited letter from her father—and one from Johnny. She hurried out into the hall, praying to see a welcome stack of cards and letters pooled on the floor beneath the mail slot.
Not so much as a postcard. She turned to hurry back to the sofa and the cozy comfort of the afghan when she heard it again, louder this time, a tap-tap-tap at the door. If Danny Tesch from down the block was throwing snowballs again, she’d take him by the ear and march him back to his mother so fast, his ten-year-old head would spin! One broken window per winter was more than enough.
“Danny,” she said, swinging the door open wide, “you stop that this minute.”
But it wasn’t Danny Tesch.
It was Private Johnny Danza.
And he was unconscious on her welcome mat.
“Oh, my God! Johnny!” She bent down, unmindful of the chill wind whipping through her pink chenille bathrobe. His skin was as white as the falling snow, his jet black hair an angry slash across his forehead. She touched his cheek. “Johnny? Please say something.”
Dear God, what was wrong? She moved her fingers down to the base of his throat, exposed by the ill-fitting army-issue overcoat. A pulse, shallow but steady, beat beneath her fingertips. She shook him by the shoulders. “We have to get you inside, Johnny. Wake up, please!”
He moaned softly and his eyelids fluttered then opened. He started to say something, but she pressed the tip of her index finger against his lips. “Save your strength. You’ll catch your death out here in the snow.”
Struggling to keep her balance on the icy top step, she managed to get her arms around him and slowly, carefully, she pulled him to a sitting position. His head rolled back against her shoulder.
“You have to help me, Johnny. I can’t do this without you.”
He was barely conscious. His lean body was a dead weight as she tried to maneuver him into the house. Her bare feet slipped on the top step, and it took every ounce of strength at her command to keep from tumbling backward, taking Johnny with her. God must have been watching over them both because somehow she regained her footing and half-dragged, half-carried him into the foyer where she laid him down on the braided rug.
She knelt next to him in a puddle of melted snow and brought her ear close to his mouth.
“You don’t have anything to be sorry about,” she said vehemently. “I’m going to take care of you.”
She loosened his tie and unfastened the top button of his shirt. How thin he was; those proud angular cheekbones stood out in stark relief in his strong-boned face. He was shivering uncontrollably, so she kept his coat on and covered him with the afghan she’d cuddled under during her nap. She ran to turn up the thermostat, coal shortage be damned. She didn’t care if they froze the rest of the winter; all that mattered was Johnny.
A shuddering cough racked his body, and it was her turn to tremble at the labored, erratic sound of his breathing. She raced upstairs and yanked the blankets from both her bed and Nancy’s, then hurried back down to the foyer and bundled him up with a few more layers of warmth. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough. His brow was slick with sweat but the shivering increased, and she knew that whatever was wrong with him couldn’t be cured with an extra blanket and a cup of cocoa.
She rushed to the telephone in the kitchen. Her fingers fumbled with the dial and for a moment Dr. Bernstein’s number played hide-and-seek with her memory. She held her breath as it started to ring. “Please be there,” she whispered. “Please... please...”
He was. “I’m closing up shop in ten minutes,” he said, after she explained the problem. “Keep him warm and I’ll be there as quick as I can.”
A half hour later she ushered the doctor into the foyer. “Oh, thank God! I was terrified the storm would—”
“Storms don’t stop me, Cathy Wilson. You should know better.” Dr. Sy Bernstein had delivered both Catherine and Nancy and over the years seen them through measles and chicken pox and assorted cuts and bumps. Seeing him standing there looking competent and trustworthy, Catherine felt better already. Dr. Bernstein handed her his coat and hat. “Toss them anywhere,” he said, bending down over the unconscious Johnny Danza. “First thing we need to do is get this young man comfortable.”
She draped his coat over the banister and balanced his hat on the first step.
“Take his feet,” ordered Dr. Bernstein. “I’m going to grab him under the arms. I’ll bear most of his weight, Catherine, but I’ll need your help.”
“Anything,” she said. “I’ll do anything.” Johnny’s boots were huge, and heavy, deeply scuffed around the toes and heels, and she found it difficult to get a good grip on his ankles. “Okay, Dr. B. Whenever, you’re ready.”
“On the count of three. One... two... three. That’s it... that’s it....” They maneuvered their human burden through the foyer and into the living room.
“The sofa by the window,” said Catherine, wincing as a pine needle stabbed the underside of her bare foot. “That’s closest to the radiator.”
Johnny moaned as they lowered him to the cushions, and Catherine felt as if a fist had grabbed her heart and was slowly squeezing it.
The doctor leaned over Johnny and began to undo the buttons on his overcoat.
“Don’t just stand there, Catherine,” Dr. Bernstein barked. “Let’s get this boy undressed.”
Her cheeks flamed despite the chill. Dr. Bernstein noticed. “You’re a sensible young woman, Catherine. Don’t go turning coy on me. I need your help.” He gestured at Johnny. “He needs your help.”
She took a deep breath then knelt next to the sofa. Her fingers fumbled at the buttons of his army-issue shirt as if she was wearing mittens. The doctor was unfastening the soldier’s trousers and she kept her gaze firmly fastened to the task before her. “Danza John,” read his dogtags. “O positive.” Her vision blurred as she tried to make out his birthdate and religion.
“Get a grip on yourself,” said Dr. Bernstein, his voice gruff but kind. “You’ll have plenty of time to cry later on.”
He was right. She knew he was right but she couldn’t help the tears. This couldn’t be happening. You simply didn’t fall asleep on your living-room sofa one minute and awake to find an unconscious soldier on your welcome mat the next. Johnny Danza was somewhere in Europe with her father, fighting the war.
She stripped off his shirt and grasped the hem of his undershirt. Her fingers brushed against his flat abdomen and she watched, mesmerized, as the taut muscles reacted to her touch.
“I’ll lift him,” said the doctor, gripping Johnny by the shoulders. “You prop him up with pillows.”
She nodded, smoothing the white undershirt over his stomach once again. He moaned again as the doctor repositioned him on the couch, and Catherine struggled to contain her tears. She wasn’t imagining this. Johnny wasn’t somewhere in Europe with her father; he was right here in Forest Hills. Dr. Bernstein cradled the man in his brawny arms while Catherine arranged those foolish, frilly chintz pillows behind his back for support.
“Get my bag from the hallway,” the doctor ordered. Catherine was back in an instant with the heavy black leather satchel.
“Take off his undershirt.”
She did as he requested. Then both he and Catherine gasped at the sight of Johnny’s bare chest. She felt her knees buckle beneath her, but Dr. Bernstein steadied her and she took a deep breath to calm herself.
“Shrapnel wounds. I haven’t seen anything like this since the last war. And look at that arm. Nasty infection setting in. Darn good thing the boy made it here or he wouldn’t’ve lasted the night in that storm.”
This is what it’s all about
, she thought, staring at the ugly wounds zigzagging across his upper torso.
This is what’s happening over there—to all of them
Dear God, forgive me
I never knew
I never imagined
... She’d been as foolish as her little sister, thinking of USO tours and war bonds, knitting scarves for brave young men to take into battle. How wrong she had been. How wrong they all had been.
She pushed an image of Douglas, torn and dying, from her mind.
Douglas was beyond her help now.
And—God help him—her father might be, as well.
But Johnny Danza was here right now and this was her chance to do for him what she couldn’t do for Douglas. She took a deep breath. “What can I do to help?” she asked Dr. Bernstein.
The doctor eyed her for an instant. “I’m going to depend upon you, Catherine.”
She nodded, swallowing hard. “I understand.”
“First thing, I need more light in here.” He glanced around the darkened living room. “Turn on the lamps and raise the shades. You could develop photographs in this place.”
Catherine quickly did as he asked. The lamps cast a yellow glow, but raising the shades had little effect, for it was already dark outside.
“Turn the heat up higher and don’t worry about restrictions. I’ll make certain you good people don’t freeze this winter. Light a fire in the grate, then bring me all the clean towels you have.”
The doctor rolled up his sleeves and reached into his bag. Johnny moaned again with pain and the sound acted on Catherine like a shot of pure adrenaline. She dashed into the hallway and raised the thermostat, then hurried out into the backyard, still in her bathrobe, to grab an armload of firewood. The wood was wet with snow and she thanked the good Lord her mother had thought to place a basket of dry kindling near the fireplace. Without it she never would have managed the roaring fire that soon warmed the living room.
Dr. Bernstein was bent low over Johnny’s body. “Towels!” he snapped. “On the double.”
She was back downstairs with a stack in seconds. Dr. Bernstein motioned for her to drape a towel over Johnny’s bared midsection.
“Look at this.” The doctor placed bloodstained metal fragments on the white bath towel. “Set up an infection throughout his system. Damn war.” Sweat, which had beaded on Dr. Bernstein’s forehead, began to trickle down until drops were balanced on the edge of his eyelashes. “He wasn’t hurt badly enough to die, but he’s not well enough to go back into battle, so what do they do? They give him a thirty-day furlough and the damn fool finds his way back home. What the hell was he thinking of, anyway?”
Catherine trembled as Dr. Bernstein probed Johnny’s flesh with a fierce-looking pair of tweezers. “Should I call for an ambulance?”
“Look out the window, girl. Patton’s tanks couldn’t make it through that snow.”
“What are you going to do?” Her voice rose an octave. “How will you take care of him?”
“I won’t,” said the good doctor, casting a sharp-eyed glance in her direction. “You will.”
“But you said he’s in terrible shape.”
“He is, but he won’t be for long.”
She almost swooned as he swabbed the angry network of wounds with an alcohol-soaked towel. “I’m not a nurse.”
“You will be by the time this boy is on his feet again.”
“Is... is he going to die?”
Dr. Bernstein chuckled. “No,” he said. “Absolutely not. The kid’s strong as an ox. Get that fever of his down and we’re halfway home.” The medicine would make short work of the fever. Johnny was also exhausted and underweight. With lots of sleep and good home-cooked food, he’d be on the mend before they knew it.
She listened carefully as he told her what she would have to do, then wrote down every last detail on a piece of pale blue stationery.
“Do you have all that, Catherine?”
“I think so, Dr. B.” She read back the instructions. “Bathe him. Dress his wounds every two hours. Medicine every four. Keep him warm, dry, well fed, and let Mother Nature do the rest.”
He patted her on the shoulder. “You’re a good girl, Cathy. Always have been. Dot and Tom should be very proud of you.”
“I’ll tell them, I’ve been feeling unappreciated lately.”
He narrowed his eyes and took a closer look at her. “Have you been getting enough sleep?”
“Probably not. The factory keeps me hopping.”
“I hope you’ve been getting out and seeing your friends.”
“Not as often as I’d like. I did get out to see National Velvet at the Elmwood last week.”
“This blasted war won’t last forever, Cathy. Before long your dad will be home again and you can go back to being a happy young woman.”
She led him into the foyer and helped him into his coat. “I’m doing just fine,” she said. “I enjoy the challenge.”
“Home and children,” he said, nodding sagely. “That’s the best challenge of all.”
She said nothing.
“Damn insensitive of me, that last remark, what with Douglas and all. I’m sorry, Catherine.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry for, Dr. B. I’ve made my peace with it.”
“You have a merry Christmas,” said Dr. Bernstein.
“And you have a happy Hanukkah.” She kissed his weathered cheek and opened the front door. “Get home safely.”
A blast of wind raced into the foyer, and Dr. Bernstein turned up the collar of his coat. “It’s going to be a hard winter,” he said as he headed down the snowy steps. “A very hard winter.”
Catherine stood in the doorway and watched until the man disappeared down the street, obliterated by the swirling snow. Another blast of wind raced up under her bathrobe and she ducked inside and closed the door behind her. All she needed was to come down with a case of the grippe. Who would take care of Johnny?
Johnny! Energy flowed into her limbs and she raced into the living room. He was sleeping peacefully on the sofa, his lanky frame an incongruous sight against the feminine looking cushions. She tucked the granny afghan more tightly under his chin. “Sleep,” she whispered, looking down at the man in her care. “I’ll take good care of you. I promise.”
She took the stairs two at a time and raced to her bedroom to change into dungarees and one of her dad’s old shirts. The dungarees were long so she rolled them up to just above her ankles and folded the sleeves of the shirt to her elbows. She slipped her feet into a pair of comfortable old slippers, gave her hair a lick and a promise, then was back downstairs before Johnny had a chance to so much as change position. Grabbing the piece of blue notepaper from the mantel, she scanned the list of nursing duties. Bathe him. Her breath caught.
? Dr. Bernstein’s words came back to haunt her: “We want to break that fever. Give him a sponge bath, then rub him down with rubbing alcohol before you bundle him back up.”
Her mother and Nancy wouldn’t be home for hours. The notion of bathing a man was shocking, but Johnny couldn’t wait for her mother to come home and tend to his needs. Catherine placed her palm against his forehead. Dr. Bernstein was right—he was burning up.
This was no time for maidenly virtue. Mustering her resolve, she went into the kitchen and filled a soup kettle with warm water, then grabbed a bar of Ivory and the clean towels Dr. Bernstein hadn’t used.