Sebastien's story by Carole W: Badges of Grief and Patience

portrait by Linn

 

Brooklyn, 1946

“Hi, darlin’.”

No matter how many times he heard her say those words, his heart always lugged in his chest. The first time, he’d opened his eyes and thought she was an angel ushering him into heaven. Didn’t take more than a couple seconds to realize he was alive. Before the pain drove him down again.

The second time he’d come to, she was holding his hand. She spoke to him, smiled and squeezed his fingers. He wanted to say something back, but his tongue was a stone and his mouth dry as chalk dust. What time is it? I’d better be getting home. Ma needs me to herd the cows in off the moorland. He’d left his schoolbooks somewhere. There’d be the devil to pay.

“It’s all right. You’ll be all right.”

She had to be kidding. The moans, the stench, the sorrow, were an assault, though behind her, in the next bed, a coal-colored man grinned and flashed the V for Victory sign. Reuben? Is that you? We gotta keep moving. Dark was a closing vice. I can’t see you. My jewels for a set of beads.2 My jewels – what’s next, Reuben? Rueben! The rose-ivory silk of her cheeks, the full lip she caught beneath her white teeth were the last bright things he remembered.

 

Sunlight streamed through a window. “The bay-trees in our country,” she was reading, a slim volume open on her lap, “are all wither’d, and meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven.”3 He coughed away his surprise, and she jumped up and hurried across the floor, returning with a glass of water. She held his head, brought the cup to his lips. Sweet relief. A Yank’s voice. A red fabric cross stitched to the pocket of her dress.

Red was his favorite color. Always had been. Irish Setters. Chestnut horses. Girls with copper hair. He wanted to tell her – well, maybe not that about the girls, as her hair was black as a raven’s wing. Seated again on a low stool between his and the next bed – empty now – she turned his hand on the bedsheets, put something in it. Something red. A little wooden house. No, a hotel. “You’ve been asking for this,” she said. “I found it in the waistband of your pants.” Cor blimey! His pants? He lifted his head to take a look, but the room tilted and his vision clouded. He sank back into his pillow, blinked against the fog ... and there was his other arm, swathed in white, strapped to some metal contraption, stuck up at an angle. His leg too, ankle to hip, suspended from the ceiling by ropes and pulleys. Damn. His whole right side. All to hell. Not all to hell, he heard Rueben say, seeing your left side’s a-okay. You made it, buddy. Mr. Sunshine, they used to call him.

“Hi, darlin’,” she whispered.

“What ... ... ... happened.”

Shhh. You’re pretty busted up, but you’ll heal. I’ll see to that.” She tucked the book  beneath his clenched fist. “This was inside the lining of your jacket.”

Rubble rolled tooth to tooth, grit he tried to swallow. Her eyes were brown flecked with gold and green, like the Dales in wintertime. He wanted to tell her that too.

Do I know you?” he croaked.

“Not yet.”

 

That January morning in Southampton harbor, he’d had his fingerprints taken, opened his suitcase for inspection, surrendered the required pound notes to the bursar. The warrant officer riffled the pages of the lone book he packed. If he’d been interrogated, he was prepared to say – truthfully – someone had given it to him during the war. A good luck charm. A memento of meaning, dark or light. No doubt the sailor kept something of the same. Onboard, the food was plenty, almost too rich, and he could take all the hot showers he wanted. Even though he still limped, the decks were fine for strolling, the pitch and yaw masking his uncertainties. But three days out, the storm hit. The North Atlantic roiled; the temperature plummeted. The Argentina crusted over in a hoary ice. Four hundred fifty-six war brides, most of them sick, sick on their hands and knees, willing to die to have it over. Their babies, a hundred and seventy of them, red-faced and squalling.

And himself.

A  war groom. A war husband. A few of the midshipmen gave him guff, but not after the captain told them he’d gone down over the Ruhr. The girls called him ‘Hub’. A little boy called him ‘Da’. He’d sit with three or four or five of the miserable on the grand staircase, show them tricks. Sleight of hand, nothing more. Tricks he’d learned from Reuben – the impassable corks, the jumping rubber band. They’d lift their heads from their knees to watch. Over and over, he pulled the same silver three-pence from behind their ears, the only one he had, the only thing in his pocket at all, save the little red hotel.

Nine days on the ocean. February 4, 1946. 3:15 in the morning. Starry skies. Thirteen degrees. The Statue of Liberty was glorious, lit for them, the first time since the war began, the ship’s master told him. The dock was crowded. A band started up. Cameras flashed flashed flashed in his face. It took forever to get down the gangplank, land a sea of trench coats and felt hats, every man’s arm raised in search and anxious welcome. Eight months since she’d shipped home. What if she hadn’t come? But there she was, in a red woolen cape.

“Hi, darlin’.”

 

Now she stood on the high stoop, pinning her white cap to her shining hair. He hadn’t gotten used to her new cut, missed unfastening the twist at her nape, missed the fall of curls, like water spilling into his hands. But she was a nurse at Methodist Hospital now. Had to look the part, even though her pay wasn’t half what she was worth. Fridays, he stuffed every penny he’d made in the coffee can, and on her way home, she’d pass a dozen stores too dear for their pocketbook.

Around doctors all day long. Had to make her think – a mistake, marrying him.

But what would I do without her. He sent up a prayer. Don’t let me ever find out.

“Hi, back.” He grabbed the iron railings either side of the steps and hauled himself up, stuck his hand out to shake hers as he’d done the day he’d arrived. “Lovely to see you again.”

“Isn’t it?” She moved into his arms. “You must have gotten off early.”

“Nope. Rode a little farther than usual before I got off to walk.”

“Well,” she said, turning her cheek to his lapel. “It’s a beautiful morning.”

Two months before, he’d taken another job – nights at a box factory, folding cartons for Schaefer beer. He’d been happy enough at Weidner’s, downstairs and around the corner at 5 AM, cranking the awning open, rolling the vegetable carts to the sidewalk. But the hours were his out of kindness, arranged for him before he ever left England, the guarantee signed and added to the pile of paperwork submitted to the committee in control of his passage. When he told Abe and Clara he’d been hired full-time at Morris’s Jewelers, Clara hurried out to Ebinger’s, returning with a three-layer chocolate cake, his favorite, in a blue box tied with string.

Morris’s didn’t pan out. Their books were chaos – decades of IOUs scribbled on paper in pencil, smudged beyond reading. How they’d stayed in business was a mystery.  The old man fretted but never asked his advice. His job was to sweep up and polish. The son, Jesse, took to having meetings in the back room with dark-suited men. Then one rainy day, early to work, he found a new ledger open on the office desk. Coded, but the encryption easily deciphered. Laughable, he might have pointed out, had he not thought it wise to back out of the empty room, out the alley door, to return twenty minutes late ... and be fired for it.

The next day, he’d scrounged up a stint at Kensington Stables, raking out the stalls in the mornings. He liked the horses, their sweet chuff at his arrival, their velvety noses in his palm, but the hours were few and they struggled to make the rent. The military benefits due him were yet to arrive. The burden of support was Charlotte’s. He had to do better.

Serendipitous, the new job. Every day, he’d walk the streets of his neighborhood, johnny-on-the-spot, he hoped, should a help-wanted notice be lodged in a window. The factory owner, an old friend of Mr. Weidner’s, hired him on the sidewalk outside Abe’s store. The shift  paid well enough, but it was in Greenpoint. A good hour on the trolley, Charlotte predicted, never commenting on the prospect of sleeping alone.

The panic came from nowhere.

It wasn’t his first ride. He was to come in for paperwork, a bit of training. The afternoon was bright with promise, the air fragrant with roasting coffee, baking bread. But once he boarded the trolley, the sun winked out. The odor of fear rose. No longer on Bergen Street, in Brooklyn, in America, he was sardined in a cattle car, on his way from Dulag Luft to Stalag I. The guest of Mr. Hitler. Three stops along, he stumbled off to a bench outside a barber shop. His head down, his fingers laced at the back of his neck. No telling what people thought. That he was wrecked, probably, knackered, just out of a bar. Someone came out of the building. “It’s all right. Move along,” a man’s voice commanded the passersby, a hand on his shoulder. “Another bus will come,” he said more softly. And one slowed and stopped; its doors parted. He climbed back on, riding the rest of the way with his hands locked under his armpits.

Kick fear to the ditch, Reuben would tell them, talking, talking, until he had them all laughing. Stare it down. Give it the heave-ho. If this was another test, he’d pass it. He had to. But coming home, he’d trudged seventeen blocks from Clifton Place.

Since, some mornings required a twelve-block walk, some ten. Today he’d lasted to Fulton Street, leaving only a seven block hike.  At their door in time to see her off for a change. To kiss her goodbye. Or was it hello? Well, both, if he kissed her twice, which he did.

“Pickles for breakfast? Jiminy, Richard!”

“I wanted a half-sour,” he said. “And it’s not breakfast for me, but merely an hors d’oeuvres.” He offered an arch look and she laughed out loud. “The barrels go outside at six AM. I can’t be the only one buying.”

Hmmph,” she answered. “You got me.”

“I hope so.”

“You have plans for the day?” she asked. 

“Just missing you.” She bussed his cheek and hurried down the steps. “Hey,” he called after her. “What do you like for supper?”

“Let’s see ...” she said, ambling backwards toward the corner. “Lobster Newburg. Porterhouse steak. Strawberry Chiffon Pie.”

He bowed at the waist, swept out one arm. “As you wish.”

She blew him a kiss. “Work your magic for me, Richie. See ya tonight.”

Tonight. She’d arrive home at six; he’d leave at eight. At least they had weekends together. Maybe today something would give, come ‘round. If only he could work magic.

 

 

When he first arrived, he’d toured the neighborhood in circled blocks, mapping the corners to memory, addresses with simple mnemonics, widening his territory day by day. He remembered names, filed away mannerisms and slang. Worked to fit in.  What’cher name? shopkeepers would ask him. Where ya from? Richard Litton, he’d answer, from Scosthrop, near Gargrave. Adding Yorkshire, the Dales, when that failed to satisfy. England, he’d finally reveal, and the druggist or stationer would rock up on his toes. Ah! Say something, how ‘bout it. Something English. Hiding his confusion, he’d quoted All the world’s a stage.4 Parting is such sweet sorrow.5

In line for butter or cheese, he’d disappear a penny, then pluck the shiny copper from behind a little boy’s ear. A white handkerchief stuffed into his fist reemerged red; a matchbook danced in his palm. Once, having watched him perform from an upstairs window, a young girl tossed down a coin wrapped with paper. So it wouldn’t bounce, she explained. He thought to leave it, then to give it to the first sad sack he encountered, in the end pocketing it, adding it later to their wish jar. Wages, he persuaded himself. Since, he’d collected quite the following. If he were on the street corner waiting to cross, children would clamor for tricks. When they asked his name, he’d bow and doff his cap. The Great Sebastien, he’d say, after Reuben. Reuben William Sebastien.

Upstairs, without Charlotte, the apartment was at once too empty and too loud – every word shouted window to window across the courtyard clearly heard; through the walls ... water in the pipes, the clatter of housework, the radio. Most mornings he’d  change his clothes, then meander the blocks to the library, arriving just as the bronze gates were unlocked. He’d climb the stairs to the reading room, choose a newspaper – the Eagle, the Mirror, the New York Times – carry it, threaded on its long wooden dowel, to a table in the sun. Lastly, he’d page through The Daily Telegraph to its cryptic puzzle, which, though he’d once had reason to curse it, was, after all, his blessing.
 
He crossed the street. Too hot for stodgy food. Something quick. Mentally, he surveyed their shelf of the shared Norge in the fourth-floor hallway. A chopped salad, scrambled eggs on toast – he’d not need to shop. Two hours at the library, three at the most, he bargained, then sleep, then Charlotte, bless Heaven. He’d copy off Sunday’s crossword grid, the clues, so later they could solve it together at the kitchen table. Afterward, he’d work on his own construction, his third, if he didn’t count those he’d scratched on the gray walls of the barracks. And then, perhaps ... he’d try the subway. A few stops past Ebbets Field and back, a nickel well spent should he meet the challenge. When he met it. Possibly he might earn his fare from an audience as captive as he.

 

Instead of a volunteer, the library’s director was seated at the desk in main reception, bent over lined paper, pen in hand. He looked up and resettled his round-framed glasses to the bridge of his nose. “Flight Lieutenant Litton! I was hoping to catch you.”

“Morning, sir,” he replied, his cap in his hands. “Thought I’d pick up that last puzzle I showed you, work on it a while.”

The librarian was smiling at him – no, beaming. Behind his chair, the office door opened; the foyer flooded with light. A woman leaned through the gap. “You’re right, Milton,” she exclaimed.  “It’s a brilliant puzzle. Themed. Diagonally symmetrical. A code to break in the middle. Are there more?"

The director tapped his desk. “Ask him yourself, Margie. He’s here.”
 

 

In the end, he didn’t take the subway, instead nearly galloping across Long Meadow. He could barely contain himself once he’d had her paged, pacing the hospital lobby, entryway to gift shop. When he heard her laugh, he sprang for the swinging doors, pushed through. She wasn’t alone; a doctor was at her side. Lyman Gold. A decent bloke. His grandfather’s horseradish was a staple in their kitchen. A team tagged at their elbows, four of them, looped with stethoscopes. Interns. Residents. He couldn’t remember the proper term. Some of his joy bubbled away.

Question flickered in her expression. “What a surprise. Gentlemen,” she said, “this is my husband, Richard Litton.”

At least one man went crestfallen at that bit of news.

“Richard, you’ve met Dr. Gold. And these ...” she said, “are our new interns. Their first day, in fact. Obstetrics.”

He put out his hand, began the hellos.

“Ralph Petersen.”

“Ward Bachman.”

“Peter Alcott.”

“Jacob Wells.”

An accent, the last man. Not his, not from home. Blue-blooded. Uppercrust.

“We’re done with orientation,” Peter said. “Join us for lunch? You two,” and he indicated the Englishman, “probably have a lot in common.”

He had thirty-eight cents in change and he’d need all that to get to work and back, to buy a cup of coffee on his break. The hidden dollar was for emergencies. His escape fund. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Charlotte color, whether for him or because of him, he didn’t need to know. The news he brought her seemed insignificant now.

 

“Your puzzles? The Times? Oh, Richard.”

"Only an interview," he reminded her. An assessment of his work. No promise of employment, no money.

Yet,” she said. The four men waited on the sidewalk for him. She kissed him soundly, murmured at his ear, “Go. We’ll be fine.”

 

“A chop house? Chinese? What about Caruso’s or Childs?” Each suggestion made him queazier. He dug for the contents of his pocket. Thirty-two cents and the red wooden hotel. “My jewels for a set of beads,” he mumbled.

The Englishman ambled over, peered with interest at the game piece in his hand. “My figured goblets for a dish of wood,”6 Jacob Wells answered. “Or, rather, the reverse of that, eh?” He held up one finger, stilling his peers. “I’m a little strapped,” he called out. “You go on along.” Jacob turned to him. “Might you be willing to show me the neighborhood? I’m upside down and sideways. Can’t find the post or the bank without a map. I’d be a menace on the roads if I had a car.”

They spoke of his Dales, of Jacob’s Birmingham, ending their tour at Nedick’s, where the sandwich, coffee and pie netted each a eighty-cent tab. Jacob didn’t offer to cover his costs and for that, he was grateful. Without explanation, he slipped the pocket-sized copy of Richard II from the lining of his jacket, peeled back the end-paper to free the bill.
 
“I’ve that entire set,” Jacob said, tapping the ivory oval embossed on the faded blue cloth cover. “Packed it first into my steamer trunk. At Oxford, I was Bolingbroke on stage. Vincentio in Measure for Measure. Prospero, and later, Antonio. Were you in any productions?”

He blew out a breath. “No college.”
 
“You served, then?”

“Not for long.”

Jacob leaned forward, waiting. He ducked his head, mashing the last crumbs of pastry with the tines of his fork. “Germany. Three years. A ... guest.”  It seemed the end of their conversation.

Hands landed on his shoulders and he swiveled at the touch. A black-clad figure, Abe Weidner’s brother. “Hello, Rabbi.”

“Going to Ebbets today?”

He shrugged a no.

“Then you’ll take my passes?” 

Two tickets materialized in his hand. Mets and Giants. Fifth row at third base. Three dollar seats. He met Jacob’s quizzical gaze.

“I’m game,” Jacob said. “So to speak.”

Tsk-tsk-tsk. You don’t know which end of the bat to hold, do you? For the first time, he laughed hearing Reuben’s voice in his head. He slid from the stool, pulled his cap from a pocket. He’d sleepwalk through work, maybe doze the entire trolley ride. “Rule number one,” he said. “Don’t root for the Giants.”

“The who? The Jints?”

And so it began.

 

June, 1949

“He’s just in the ward,” he heard. “His third show already.”

He removed his silk top hat and allowed the closest-crowding boy to fish inside. When his new assistant declared the hat empty, he waved one hand above it, wiggled his fingers. The boy reached inside again, bringing out a handful of foil-wrapped chocolate coins. The semi-circle of pale children drifted off to their beds with their prizes. Bowing and bowing again, he backed into the hallway.

“Richard – or should I say Sebastien – there you are.”

He collapsed his wand and hat. “Hello, Jacob. Or should I say Dr. Wells. How does it feel?”

“There’s a sense of unreality, I must admit. I feared this day might never come.”

Whether for chocolate or an introduction, he wasn’t sure, but the escorting nurse lingered close by. He showed an empty palm, furled and unfurled his fingers, letting rain the last few candies into her hand. She disappeared around a corner. Grinning, he turned to Jacob, who fussed with the half-Windsor knot of his tie. “There were days you didn’t think you’d pass gross anatomy. When I didn’t think you would.”

“I expressed my gratitude, I’m sure,” Jacob said, “for your ... assistance.”

“I should test you myself. The muscles of respiration?”

“Don’t Exercise in Quicksand.”

Diaphraghm. External intercostals. Internals intercostals. Quadratus. Correct. “The superior thyroid artery branches?”

“I dare say, Richard, you know these terms as well as I. You may have missed your calling.”

“Too squeamish. Besides, everyone wants a bit of magic.” As they passed the central nurses’ station, he swept a single silk rose from his sleeve, handing it over the counter with a flourish.

“You’re very popular.” Jacob winked. “With the children, I mean.”

“It ... keeps me busy. With all the babies being born these days, the practice requires weekend hours. Has for a few months.” Their new apartment was larger, quieter, and they had their own refrigerator now, but he was no less lonely there with Charlotte away at work. And the little ones in the wards ... He felt for them. They were anxious. Isolated. Confined against their wills. 

“Yes, of course,” Jacob said. “Peter told me as much, when last we spoke.” They walked a hallway in silence. “How are things at the Times?”

“After all the resistance, there’s talk the crosswords will go daily soon.”

“You should get credit, Richard. The by-line. You’re the genius of it.”

A raise would make him happier. “Mrs. Farrar’s the genius. And a benevolent boss. I’m off today, as you see.” Dem bums, she’d declared, when he asked for the holiday, then waved him back to task.

“But it’s the Businessman’s Special! An American tradition!” Jacob set his fedora, adjusted the brim. “Lunch, as always, on our way?”

He unbuttoned his new black tail-coat. “Let me leave my props with Charlotte.”

They crossed the street to a row of storied brownstones. When he glanced sideways, he caught Jacob studying the clouds, more on his mind, it seemed, than his just-completed research fellowship or his newly-secured job. His position. Ah, but he’d wait to ask, needle him with obliviousness, just for fun.

The waiting room door sported a square of opaque glass, Lyman Gold, MD, Obstetrics and Gynecology across it in dull black paint, Peter Alcott, MD, in shining ebony beneath. Behind the reception desk, Charlotte studied an open chart, Peter at her side.

“And here they are,” she exclaimed. “Off to their yearly ballgame while we labor in the trenches.”

 

“Nedick’s or Chock Full O’Nuts?” Jacob asked, as he shot his cuffs.

“I thought today we’d splurge, or rather, you would, given your new salary.

“I won’t be seeing a penny of that for a month. Until then, I’ll be dining at the Automat. That is, unless you and Charlotte have me over for supper.”

“Say we break out of our rut, Jacob, and try Brennan and Carr’s, or Rosen’s. They do carve a lean pastrami.”

“But I like a lunch counter. I truly do.”

There was a time when sharing sandwich and an orange drink with Charlotte was the reward for two weeks of scrimping, when a fifty-cent seat in Ebbets’ upper grandstand was all – no – more than he could afford. Now, at least, he might spring for Jacob’s meal. He fished in his pocket for change, bringing out a few loose coins, the silver money clip Charlotte had given him when he hired on at the newspaper, the red wooden hotel he kept close. Jacob said nothing when he spied it, though he raised one brow.

They wove the room to empty stools at the tall windows. The sidewalk streamed with people, darkening the glass to a momentary mirror showing him the gray streak that blazed his hair. Prematurely so, Charlotte was fond of saying, and when she traced it with her fingers, he didn’t mind it quite as much. He added cream to his coffee. Seated next to him, dapper as always, in a double-breasted suit, a yellow patterned tie, his straw Panama situated on the table, far from a splash or a crumb, Jacob blew delicately across his steaming tea, returned it to its saucer without a sip.

He’d seen Jacob on rare occasions over the past year, Peter’s wedding being the last, four months earlier. Rarely emerging from the research facility where he studied, when he did, Jacob’s conversation would not be pried from cell biology, the mysteries of DNA. “You’ll miss the Rockefeller, I suppose, but have you seen your office at Chittenden yet?”

“What? Oh ... my office. Well, it’s a closet really, a hole in the ground. But the resources! The equipment! I can’t wait to ...” His words trailed away. Frowning, he propped an elbow on the tabletop, his chin in his hand.

“Spill it, won’t you? Something’s–” and he broke off, suddenly ... knowing. On cloud nine one minute, in the dumps the next. “Who is she?” he asked.

“I don’t know.” Jacob raked his fingers through his still-dark hair. “I was having a suit tailored at Bloomingdale’s. On my way to claim it, walking along 57th Street, nearly to 5th Avenue, a woman ...” Jacob drew a sharp breath and his eyes starred over.

“A woman ... what?” he prompted, clattering his white china mug to the formica counter, grinning when Jacob inched his hat further away from danger. 

“She smiled at me.” Jacob finally said. “Then she ... disappeared.”

“57th and 5th ... She disappeared into Tiffany’s?”

Jacob shook his head. “How do you do that? I’m still asking directions after every third turn.” He considered his tea, pushed it away. “A cab pulled to the curb and she was gone. Gone. I went back the next day and the next to the same corner and even again this morning. She was a vision. I must find her. But how?”

“Chin up. We’ll think of something. Maybe the air at Ebbets will clear your head. We’ll be seated high enough.”

 

June, 1951

He stood just outside the main gate. The last chords of the national anthem faded away. He amused a circle of boys without tickets, pulling half dollars from nowhere, handing one to each. They dashed with them to the window. Already he heard the shouts, the swell of hopes. They’d missed an inning.

But there he was, stepping out of a taxi, in his gray-checked suit and navy tie looking more the university professor than a physician, his identification badge on a lanyard around his neck. Jacob dragged it over his head, stuffed it in his pocket, affixed a button to his lapel, one that matched his, purchased opening day, 1947, and worn every game  together since. I’m for Jackie.
 
“My apologies, my apologies. Work ...” Jacob brandished two tickets, his turn this year to buy, though his new father-in-law had gifted the seats. He’d rung him up about it, pleased to offer the plums, a bit dismayed the opponent would be the Cards, not the Jints. But this time – as their first – they’d enjoy the lower stands, nearly eye to eye with the third baseman. 

“Big doings at Chittenden? You’re just back from your honeymoon, Jacob! It’s bad enough leaving Margaret for the afternoon, but couldn’t you take the rest of the week off?”

“Margaret’s, ummm, busy. Unpacking, you know. Things for the new house we had shipped home.” Halfway up the gangway, a white-suited vendor hustled past, lugging an iron tray of franks and rolls, an open jar of yellow mustard. Jacob rubbed his hands together. “At least we’ve not missed lunch.”

The grass was the same emerald; the sky a brilliant blue. Jackie jittered off second base, drawing a glare from the pitcher. One out. Furillo at bat. Campanella on deck. “Forty cents each,” the vendor yelled and Jacob patted his vest pocket for his wallet.

“Let me.” He opened his fist to a collection of coins, the red hotel still amongst the quarters and dimes. This time Jacob plucked it up with the payment, and after sending along the eighty cents and a nickel tip, held it aloft. The hot dogs passed hand-to-hand down the row. Jacob returned the toy to his palm, his focus to the game. The wind-up, the pitch, the crack of the bat. Furillo sent the ball bouncing past first into right field and Jackie raced around third, his slide into home plate fogged with dust.

“We’ve been awarded a grant,” Jacob said between bites, his voice pitched just below the crowd’s roar. “We’ll study the effect of fallout. Officially. Our findings will be made public. You. know what this means.”

He nodded, remembering. In Peter’s kitchen, watching over a vat of simmering spaghetti sauce, the three of them, beers in hand, all a little squiffy. The girls outside on chaise lounges. Patti Page on the radio – With My Eyes Wide Open, I’m Dreaming. Their discretion a given, Jacob confirmed the whispered rumors – nuclear experimentation was being considered in America. Had already been carried out, he fumed, using prisoners, the incapacitated, the institutionalized, the unaware. Radioactive oatmeal, for God’s sake! Plutonium in the drinking water!

“It means I can stop it.”

 

April 1952

By the third inning he’d decided Jacob wasn’t coming. He’d purchased the tickets months before, the choicest seats – second row, halfway to first base – but when he rang Jacob’s number to tell him, there was never an answer, eventually, a notice of disconnect.  When he stopped by their Gramercy Park home, no one came at his knock, not the housekeeper, not Margaret.

Seven months since they’d spoken. “You’re not to acknowledge me,” Jacob had demanded. “From this moment on, I don’t know you.” Six months since he’d seen him last, if it counted that he waited with Peter that day on the steps of the Federal Building, to have him refuse their outstretched hands and, hounded by photographers, dash past unblinking into Foley Square. Where had he been? They’d once joked he slept under his lab table, his arms around his microscope. No longer a possibility, that. He fanned the tickets in his hand. Too good to waste. Too sad to use but one.

“Upper grandstands,” the seller in the booth told him when he inquired of a lone seat. “Right or left field. Fifty cents.” He pulled out his change, deliberated ... If only the little red hotel had a map inside again, this time one Jacob might follow.

“You carry that thing like I do a pocket dollar.” Jacob was suddenly at his elbow, a silver coin flat on his open palm. Liberty’s profile showed a smoothing of her ridges and lines, worried by his thumb, no doubt. 1923, he saw, the year they both were born. A Peace Dollar. “Do we need tickets? I’ll buy.”

He wanted to clap his shoulder, pull him into a bear hug, instead he grinned and proffered the reservations. Jacob took them, read the gate number, the seat designations. His brows went up. “Well, let’s get going, shall we? I’ve thrown a large enough spanner in the works.”

As always, Jacob was pressed and neat, his shirt snow-white, his pocket square crisp, his fedora angled forward, but when he smiled at the ticket-taker and pocketed the stubs, his eyes were webbed with crow’s feet; when he removed his hat, his hair was silver-flecked. He heard Reuben, behind him in line, whispering. None of that heads down stuff. If it’s coming at you, you wanna see it. Jacob had watched it come at him, right enough.

In their seats, they breathed in the green, the blue, the cheers, the dreams. Wait ‘til next year, he wanted to tell his friend. Things can get better. They will. The Dodgers took the field; their rivals came to bat. Al Dark drew a walk. Willie Mays lobbed a single on the first pitch. Bobby Thompson stepped to the plate, taking three warm-up swings to growls of disfavor. He leaned into his friend’s shoulder. “Look. They’re stealing signs, the Giants are.”

“Really? How can you tell?”

And for a moment, at least, Jacob’s sadness gave way to indignation, to curiosity. Fight left in him, he was sure.

 

The game over, goodbye hovered near.

“She’s gone. Gone.”

“I know.”

“I have nothing,” Jacob went on, his voice oddly unwavering. “No ... place.”

“That’s not true.” But he imagined himself without Charlotte. Her anchoring presence. Her belief in him. His reason. Would he don his top hat, become a jester to hide his pain? Wander the earth, ride the subway - now that he could - to its last stop and back? Men did just that, every day. He saw them on the train to work. He cradled his hat, stared inside.

“If only you had some magic in there for me,” Jacob said, rising to leave.

They passed through the rotunda and outside, where Jacob put out his hand in farewell. He’d seen the finished look in a man’s eyes before. “Coffee,” he proposed. “Or tea. Or better yet, a pint. It’s not too early.” Say it’s not too late.  A card up his sleeve, a transparent trick, he pulled the red hotel from his pocket. “You’ve never once asked,” he pointed out. “But if you’ll have a beer with me, I’ll tell you.” Had he’d known a thousand tales, he’d have launched from one into the next. Anything to keep his friend close. Awake. Alive. 

 

So many things he was sworn never to divulge. Recruited to Bletchley Park, the Code and Cypher School, on the strength of his completion of a coded puzzle in a newspaper, enlisted, trained, then sent abroad to intercept, interpret, divine. A year later, he went down; two months thereafter, shipped north to Barth like an animal.

The series of Shakespeare plays arrived one by one in parcels from the YMCA. They read them aloud, assigned the parts. During the long days and longer nights, they’d pass a book around; by lantern light or in the dark by memory, recite the lines, carpenters and chemists alike. Then a box appeared, from an unknown charity. Twenty copies of Richard II. No clue, the men professed, representatives of the four barracks. But he knew, right away, and passed them out. That brain of yours, Reuben remarked, once he’d explained. Who’d have thought it to look at you.

They formed an escape committee, created a secret world lived in plain sight of their enemy guards. He taught them to use the shared volume for coded messages. Page, line, word. Innocent enough to be found reading – deciphering – right under their captors’ noses.  Afterward, he began chalking puzzles on the walls, the first dozen wholly righteous. Later, a specific clue from each was key. A tapping sequence on the metal railings of their bunks told them all which one. It might take days to transmit the message, but they had years, as it turned out.

More parcels came their way, from the Red Cross, the Salvation Army. Boxes of chocolates, some filled with dye capsules instead of cherries to mix with water or snow, to turn their tell-tale gray shirts brown or blue. Two baseballs, an ash-wood bat. Reuben’s eyes lit up. Under the guise of the game, he taught them signs. Manager to third base coach, to the on-base runners. Catcher to pitcher. “The second sign after I crack my knuckles,” he said, demonstrating. Nose swipe, chin rub, knuckles ... button fiddle, forehead brush. With one finger, one o’clock. Two fingers, two. Tonight, behind the lavatories. When the lockdowns came, he taught them to play with dice, the diamond drawn with a stick in the dirt, all the while devising signal-alphabets, their own peculiar language, drilling, drilling.

Be watching, he’d been assured before he left England. We won’t forget you ... if. And one day, a box arrived, in it the mythic board game – Monopoly – a tiny red dot stamped in the corner of the Free Parking square. Real German Reich marks concealed in the packets of play money. A screw-together file embedded in the cardboard. A tiny compass inside the Scotty dog. And within the little red hotel, a map. A silk map that folded small, that didn’t rustle, that didn’t fade or water log or smear. The path to safety. The chosen night, thirty-six men slipped by pairs into the pine woods at the compound’s edge.

Days before they escaped, he destroyed the game, ripped the board to shreds, tossed the playing pieces – all but one – in the fire. He carried the map, a copy of the book, a share of the money hidden inside the binding; Reuben, the compass and a stolen gun with three bullets. They had a deal, a pact. But when recapture seemed imminent, Reuben instead shoved him over the ravine at their backs, where he was blessedly found by Yanks, how many days later he’d never know.


“Reuben?” Jacob asked.

He could only sigh and shake his head.

Any of the others?”

“More than half, I’ve learned.”

“You saved them.”

“Who saved who, Jacob?” 

 

August 1953

The mail cart rumbled in the aisle-way. Another new clerk. “Richard Litton?” she queried, though his nameplate was square on his desk. She handed him a banded curl of brown mailers, two glossy magazines. In return, he offered the galleys packaged up for Simon and Schuster, the proofs for his second book of published puzzles. The young woman pushed the cart past the next desk, left it there. Odd, he thought, rolling the rubber band from the interoffice mail. A small, white envelope fluttered out.

Sorry to miss our ball game, he read. A string of numbers followed the single, unsigned sentence. 12-5-9, 31-8-2, 1-11-6 ... I have that very set, Jacob had once informed him. From his top drawer, he fetched his own blue-bound copy, turned first to page twelve, trailed his finger to line five ... word nine ...

An address, a corner he knew well enough. A time within the hour. Come as the magician.

Under the pretense of sudden poor-feeling, leaving his suit jacket on the back of his chair, he draped his black frock-coat over his arm and hustled from the building, his magic box in hand a near-enough match to his briefcase. At 47th and 8th, he waited, snapping open his hat, buttoning his buttons. A wraith of a girl whirled by, pressed a note into his hand, danced away. The park, Bethesda Fountain. At the nearest station, he boarded the train; at 72nd Street, he emerged. Between Cherry Hill Fountain and the Mall, a rag-tag stepped into his path, wearing a top hat and tails more worn than his, faded to gray. Recognizable. Identifying. Code-talking. “Hello, Sebastien,” the boy said, no uncertainty in his voice. "Come with me."


This time he did grab him into a bear hug, his voice being no good. No good at all.

Jacob led him to a candlelit cavern room, a spiral staircase unbelievably at its center. A rickety game table and two high-backed chairs flanked a flickering brazier.  Across a rough sideboard, the Yale Shakespeares ranged – the entire forty-volume set, it seemed, bluer than his and less frayed, stopped at either end with trumpeting bronze elephants.  A single copy lay open on a broad mahogany desk. How on earth–

“My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown.”7 From a massive wardrobe, Jacob drew a leather-frogged sweater, passing it over a set-up of chess. “Sit, please. I’m sure you have ... questions.”

“Well, one.” He settled his jacket over a chair-back, pulled on the cardigan. “Do you play, Jacob?”

“I do. Odd we never had a game. Why was that?”

“I wouldn’t have thought it fair to offer,” he said.

Jacob looked past him, into the years gone by, perhaps into what might have been, but when his gaze refocused, his eyes were clear and earnest. “We’re so raw here. We can’t communicate. We need shorthand. Your skills, Richard ... your memory, your recognition of patterns, of codes. If you could help us ...” He spread his hands.

Us. We. On his way, he'd passed a woman, regal, tall, and heavy with child. An angular man stood in a junction, watching his approach with narrowed eyes, by his side a woman with a gentle if faltering smile. Hollow thunks and thumps echoed in the passageway. A wind whistled through, on it he'd heard the laughter of children. A sense of unreality. Jacob once described graduating medical school so. This was that and more.

“There are some people I’d like you to meet,” Jacob went on. “Friends. John, for one. He is ... a force. My opponent.” He waved his hand over the game pieces. “A brilliant man, but his ideas are ... complex. His intention to use the pipes threading these chambers to transmit messages has most of us befuddled. And the twists and turns here below ... We need–”

“Maps.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “How do you find your way up, Jacob?”

“I ... don’t.”

Ah. He studied the chess board before him. “Are you white or black? If you’re white, you’ll lose in four moves.”

“You don’t say!” Jacob bent to the squares, frowning, after a moment, heaving a sigh. “I still don’t see it.” He sat back in the velvet-covered chair, his hands loose on the arms. “Perhaps we could begin a new tradition. A chess match, once a year? I might surprise you.”

Surprise, indeed. No might about it. Behind Jacob’s chair, on a tiered level, a statue of a lady with a vase was a compassionate presence. Her cast countenance flickered with candlelight. My gorgeous palace for a hermitage.8 “I’m game," he said. "So to speak.”

And so it began.

 

_______________

A/N: The story of the Argentina's voyage is a true one, and the special Monopoly games did exist, the gifts inside aiding thousands of soldiers to escape WWII POW camps.

 

Title Quotation: William Shakespeare. Richard II. Act 5. Scene II.

2. Ibid. Act 3. Scene III.

3. Ibid. Act 2. Scene IV.

4. Ibid. As You Like It. Act 2. Scene VII.

5. Ibid. Romeo and Juliet. Act. 2. Scene II.

6. Ibid. Richard II. Act. 3. Scene III.

7. Ibid. 

8. Ibid.

 

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