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By Christopher Bram
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 Christopher Bram
All rights reserved.
As familiar now as our own baby pictures, the images were still new and startling four months into the war.
The tree of black smoke towered over the broken battleship. A tiny launch specked with sailors bobbed alongside in the rolling gray water.
Then came the murky stairway packed with nude men, civilian clothes bundled in their arms, various hats perched on their heads. Their nakedness was vulnerably unbeautiful. But in daylight and khakis, with T-shirts and harsh haircuts, the acres of men jumped in perfect unison. Acres of tires, old tins and saucepans were displayed by proud schoolchildren; grid-windowed factories poured out miles of tanks and howitzers, while kerchiefed women in overalls took what looked like mounds of lipstick tubes and proved them to be machine gun cartridges. Suddenly, after so many years of dull confusion, there was purpose. Victory seemed only a matter of time. (The defeats in the Pacific—the surrender of Bataan, the siege of Corregidor—were not dwelt upon; there was no newsreel footage anyway.)
The black-and-white blizzard of news flashed outside the room where the projectionist's daughter listened to her father. This was the Lyric Theater in Manhattan and the projection booth was dark except for the gooseneck lamp bent over the workbench and the light that leaked from the casing around the running projector. The newsreel's narration and music swelled to a patriotic finish in the booth speakerbox. Simon Krull stood at attention by the little window and intently watched the screen. He touched the switches on either side of him. Another projector roared to life; the Looney Tunes theme came on. "So?" said Simon.
"I could, Papa, only..." Anna Krull sat on the high stool by the workbench. She clutched one cold hand with the other in the fold of wool skirt sunk between her knees. "I never know what to say to boys."
"Stuff and nonsense." Simon had lived in this country thirty years now, but still spoke with a grumbly trace of a German accent. People might mistake him for a Jew, but that sometimes came in handy. He bent down to adjust the lamp in the second projector. Streaks of light lit his long, gentle face from below. "What must you say to boys anyway? You are as beautiful as your mother was. All a girl must be is beautiful. That is her half of the conversation."
Anna thought her beauty was all in her father's eyes. In her eyes she was short and pudgy, and feared her large breasts only made her look fat.
Simon stepped around to the first projector, saw his daughter's frown, and stopped in front of her. "You are beautiful," he said.
"One day," Anna replied, although she was already twenty.
He petted her on the cheek, then brushed a blond curl behind her ear.
Anna smiled; she liked having him fuss over her.
"Maybe we get you a new hairstyle," he said. "And we can—whatever women are doing to their eyebrows. New clothes. A little rouge."
"But you don't like me wearing makeup," she reminded him. All he and Aunt Ilsa allowed was a touch of lipstick. "You don't want me to look like a floozie, remember?"
Simon withdrew his hand. He abruptly turned away and began to unload the first projector. "There is a war on," he said coldly. "We must all make sacrifices." He flipped back pinions and springs: he was angry. He carried the reel back to the bench and took a new reel down from the rack, without looking at her.
Anna bit her tongue. She hadn't intended to fight him. She said what she said only to play the good daughter. She wanted to wear makeup and new clothes, to go places she had never been, with her father's blessing.
She sat nervously on the stool and watched Simon work. He seemed so capable in the long, old-fashioned white coat that made him look like a butcher or surgeon. She trusted he was equally capable at this other thing he did. He had been doing it for six years. And today he was asking her to join him. She was overjoyed to have her father share his life with her like that, but beneath her joy she kept touching fear.
The harmlessly frantic cartoon played in the speakerbox and on the distant screen. Cartoons and features had not yet caught up with the newsreels. It was possible to forget there was a war, that everything had changed.
He stood with his back to her after the cartoon ended and he had started Henry Aldrich for President. He said to the little window, "I do not like having to make you part of this. I wish it weren't necessary."
"But I want to be part of this, Papa. I do. If I sound confused, it's only because...I don't know. Because I'm afraid I might fail you?"
He gazed at her from beneath his long, kind eyelids. "No. You will not fail me. You have kept my secret this long, I know I can trust you to be careful."
It had been their little secret for six years now, a special bond between father and daughter. Not even Aunt Ilsa knew what her brother-in-law did with his free time, or why he was so curious about so many different things.
"Which is why I ask you," Simon continued. "There is no woman I can trust the way I trust my own lamb. And it is necessary," he insisted, as much to himself as to her, "now that there is no longer that house in Brooklyn."
"What house?" They had an apartment on Riverside Drive and had never lived in Brooklyn.
Simon waved the question aside. "Nothing. Just a house. A place where sailors went."
Anna knew her father spent his Sundays walking along the waterfront, striking up conversations, noticing things. "A place you went to?"
The length of his face turned red, up into his thinning hair. "No. It was not a nice place. Friends of a friend went there. Now they can't. I did not approve of these friends and am ashamed my friend depended on them. It is not fit that a young girl hear about it, understood?"
Anna respected her father's sense of propriety, but her interest was touched. A brothel? Even she knew such places existed. Her father would never go to such a place, but Anna wondered what it would be like.
Simon set up the film reel on the workbench hand winds. "You will not be doing anything to be ashamed of. I could not live with myself or your mother's memory if I thought that were possible." He began to rewind the film; the rhythm of turning and the whistle of film against the reels seemed to calm him. "You will go to dances and clubs. Proper places. You go to this U.S.O., where they always want nice girls to dance with the sailors. There are always many chaperones. You dance, you listen. Maybe you meet someone you like. Although, it could be dangerous if you meet someone you like too much."
"I won't," said Anna. But the possibility seemed to be already at the back of her thoughts when Simon mentioned it. She was surprised by how excited she felt at the prospect of going out into such a world.
"Maybe it is good you are shy with boys. If you were in any way wild, I would worry about you in such situations."
And she remembered her fear of men. That was where she would fail her father, and where the anxiety beneath her joy was strongest. She pictured herself at a dance, passed over again and again for thinner, more articulate girls. She never had been able to endure the thought of such humiliation for her own sake. She wondered if she could knowing it was for her father.
"I will increase your allowance, of course."
"The money's not important, Papa."
"It's only fair. And you will need something extra. For clothes and taxis. I won't want you coming home alone when it's late."
There was money involved, no great wealth, but extra funds that had enabled them to move from Yorkville to Riverside Drive, and that allowed Simon to support two women. He was very proud that neither his daughter nor sister-in-law had to work.
"Of course, your aunt is not to hear of this. Or suspect it either. We will talk only here. Maybe we will have you bringing me my supper every night. So people will not be getting suspicious."
Anna liked the idea. She felt far closer to her father here in his place that smelled of acetate and hot wiring than she ever did at home.
The last foot of film spun off one reel and slapped the table a few times before Simon braked the loaded reel between palm and fingers. He glanced at his daughter as he returned the reel to the rack. Then he reached down with both hands and lifted Anna's hands out of her lap. His fingers were soft except for the calluses like thimbles across the tips.
"I know it is a great deal I ask of you. But. Yes?"
Anna stared at him. He looked so tender and wistful, as if he feared she might refuse. That she could refuse had never occurred to Anna. "Of course."
"Good. Very good." He clasped her hands and lightly wagged them up and down. His blue eyes looked deeper into her blue eyes, until his long, speckled lids suddenly closed.
"Don't worry, Papa. It'll be all right."
"My own lamb," he sighed and lifted his eyelids, "is growing up."
The doorknob clicked, then rattled.
Simon jerked his hands back and stepped away, as if they had been doing something unseemly. Anna knew better, but the abrupt move hurt.
There was a knock outside and, "Hey, Mr. Krull! Who locked the doe?"
Simon went down the steps and let his assistant in. Alfred was a bony young man from the East Bronx, with bad posture and teeth of different colors.
"Here ya fags, Mr. Krull. They was out of Luckies. Out of everything, these gobs buying anything that's not nailed down. Hi, Miss Krull, ya still here?"
"She was just going." Simon took Anna's coat down from the peg and held it open for her. That was as close as he came to kissing her goodbye in the presence of others. "I will try not to be too late, dear."
"We'll have your dinner waiting for you in the oven, Papa." It was what she always said, but saying it today in front of Alfred, with so much else on her mind and her father's, was strangely exciting. She didn't want to go. She wanted to be given her first task, so that her excitement could be given purpose, shape. Her father held her coat until she was snugly inside it. "Goodbye, Papa. Bye, Alfred."
"See ya around," said Alfred, pretending to tinker with a projector while he stole a look at the inches of calf between her bobby socks and skirt. Anna thought Alfred repulsive.
She went down the five steps to the door, gave her father a last look and opened the door. A couple sat necking on the step outside. A sailor and girl. They turned around, startled by the light and Anna. The sailor saw Anna and proudly smirked, unaware of how silly he looked with his neckerchief twisted over his shoulder and his mouth smeared with lipstick. The girl was sleepy-eyed, young and unashamed; she seemed to challenge Anna with her eyes.
"Excuse me," Anna said sharply, pulling the door shut behind her, closing off the light and the whir of the projector. She gingerly stepped around the couple.
The town had filled up with servicemen this past month and one couldn't go anywhere without falling over groping couples. New York was one big barnyard. Anna went up the aisle toward the curtain hung over the exit, trying to forget about sex, wanting to feel important with her secret future. Away from her father, she didn't feel excited, only anxious.
Out in the balcony lobby stood two more sailors, talking and smoking cigarettes. Their uniforms made them look like black paper dolls. Anna noticed them notice her as she walked by. Could she do it, talk to male strangers? She had already walked past them and couldn't turn back without appearing brazen, but she wanted to test herself. She paused at the top of the stairs that went down to the glass doors, foyer and daylight. She looked back at the two sailors; neither noticed she was still there.
Then she saw another sailor down below, giving his ticket to Bobby at the door before he came up the stairs, two steps at a time. He was very tall and his black wool coat made him look huge, so huge he frightened Anna. But she stood her ground, waited for him to see her. He looked at the gold ceiling, brass handrail, balding carpet, at everything but Anna. He had a child's face and was grinning like an idiot.
His grin vanished when he saw her waiting for him.
Anna drew a deep breath and said, "Lovely day, sailor."
The sailor snatched his cap off his head. A sheaf of blond hair fell on his brow. "Yes ma'm. Beautiful day, thank you." He had a thick Southern accent.
"Yes. Well..." What next?
The sailor continued to walk past her, gawking, still clutching his cap in one hand. He was a hick, a complete innocent.
"Enjoy it!" said Anna.
"Ah will, ma'm. You enjoy it yourself." And he returned his cap to his head and kept right on walking.
Anna breathed a sigh of relief as she went down the stairs. She could talk to them. It wasn't her fault this sailor was too stupid to know how to take advantage of a friendly woman. Or, if he had rejected her because she wasn't pretty enough, that didn't hurt her the way it did when she had thought only of herself. The old anxieties were nothing but selfishness, and Anna had a higher purpose now.
She went out on Forty-second Street feeling pleased with the future. Things were happening; it was an exciting time. It was only right that things should happen with her.CHAPTER 2
Hank fayette, seaman second Class, screwed his cap back on his head and loped across the balcony lobby. It was a nice surprise to have a stranger say hello. The North was supposed to be so unfriendly, yet that pudgy girl had greeted him just like any sane person on the streets of Beaumont, Texas.
Two sailors stood off to one side and watched Hank approach. One nudged the other; the other shook his head. Hank wondered what they were considering, but he didn't want to have anything to do with them either. This was his first day of liberty after two months at sea and Hank was tired of Navy. It was his first time in New York City and he wanted everything to be new. He had spent all morning and the better part of the afternoon riding the trolleys up and down this human beehive, getting a crick in his neck. There was something wonderfully unnatural about a place where buildings dwarfed the tallest elm tree. The city looked straight out of the planet Mongo in the funny papers.
The inside of the theater was as big as a circus tent, but the movie looked the same as movies in Beaumont, only taller. This was another one about the boy from the radio who talked through his nose. Hank almost turned around and went back out again, only he'd paid his four bits and there was no harm in staying long enough to see what happened. He stood at the back of the balcony, behind the partition, took off his bulky pea coat and draped it over the partition. There were plenty of empty seats up here for the matinee, but theater seats never gave Hank enough room for his lanky legs. He tugged at the scratchy dress blues that pulled too tight across his butt and wondered if the guys had been only ragging him about this place. It was just a big old movie theater.
There was a sudden smell of cologne, sweet and boozey. Then the smell faded. Hank looked left and right. He saw the back of a man sliding off to the right. The pointy crown of the man's half-lit hat was turning, as though he'd been looking at Hank.
Hank glanced back at the movie—Henry Aldrich was getting scolded by his mother—then looked around the sloping balcony. Someone got up, walked up the aisle, then sat down again. So many Yankees wore those funny shoulders that Hank wasn't certain which were men and which were women in this light. He looked up at the staggered windows of the projection booth and the beam of light that occasionally twitched inside itself.
The smell of cologne returned, and hung there. Hank waited a moment. When he turned around, he found himself looking down on the spotless brim of a hat. The man stood only a foot away. Like most people, he was shorter than Hank.
The man looked up, his face slowly appearing beneath his hat. He had a smooth, friendly face and a red bow tie. "You're standing improperly," he whispered.
"Beg pardon?" said Hank. "Sir?"
"If you want to meet people, you should stand with your hands behind you."
The man sounded so well-meaning and knowledgeable Hank automatically took his big hands off the partition and placed them at his back in parade rest.
"And you're quite tall. You should hold them a little lower."
Excerpted from Hold Tight by Christopher Bram. Copyright © 1988 Christopher Bram. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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