A Remember WENN story
by Linda M. Young
Hidden behind the golden days of the previous week's Indian summer, November had arrived with a vengeance.
Betty Roberts found herself trudging the two blocks from the trolley stop to the front door of the building with her head bowed, one hand and arm clutching her purse to her side despite her billowing coat, the other hand clapped over the wool toque that covered her head, as a chill wind off the Monongahela was blowing steadily down Isabella Street, whistling in the sewer grates and scudding up soot and grime as it went.
When she squinted upwards the last time to get her bearings, she realized she had to dodge someone standing in the doorway, a man in his fifties who had snugged himself as much as possible out of the brunt of the wind. He was wearing a long overcoat, unbuttoned to reveal a woolen doughboy's uniform, and around his neck he had slung a flat wooden box suspended by a leather strap. The box was closed, but Betty knew immediately its contents.
"Good morning, Mr. Brewster," she said with a polite nod, slipping into the square area that formed the doorway to the building to escape the wind before extracting her purse from under her arm.
"It's Jake, Miss Roberts." His thin face, scarlet from the cold, glowed as he smiled. "I've told you that for the last three years."
"It's Betty," she returned with an equally wide smile, trying to focus on his pleasant, open expression rather than the right leg that was gone at the knee, with the trouser leg pinned up around it. She looked down at the change in her coin purse, wavered over the nickel, then silently said goodbye to an afternoon treat that day and fished out a dime instead, which she placed into the slotted container fastened to the side of the box.
"Thank you, Betty," he said in a pleased voice, then reached into the box and fished out two poppies. "Here you are."
"No, no," she said, attempting to take only one of the two being pressed on her. "I need only one."
"You paid for two," he said firmly, holding the poppies out to her. "Take them both or I'll make change."
"No-" And because he was leaning toward her to hand her the poppies, she realized he was becoming unbalanced and she quickly took the flowers so he would not fall over.
"May I pin one on for you?"
"No, that's fine. I'll put it on my blouse when I get upstairs," she said, tucking the pair of plastic flowers into the pocket of her woolen skirt. "Jake, it's terribly cold out heredo you need some coffee? Or tea?"
He laughed. "I've been treated by half the people in the building, but thank you anyhow."
And he turned to face the street again as a passerby hailed him for a poppy.
Betty tugged the heavy glass door open and hurried inside, stretching out her icy fingers to thaw in the welcome steam heat of the lobby. To her right, the Marconi Radio Store was displaying the newest Atwater Kent model, its volume low, the dial set to WENN. She'd always thought that was nice of them; it was something they had always done, rather than being a product of one of Victor Comstock's trade deals or Scott Sherwood's barters.
The voice coming from the big upholstered speaker was that of President Roosevelt, who was giving a special speech on this Armistice Day morning. Betty fancied that his voice sounded tired, and no wonder, as he and his advisors watched the mounting crisis in Europe. She made a mental note to run to the candy store at lunchtime for a newspaper.
It was Armistice Day that had given her the opportunity to come in a little later, nine thirty rather than her usual 7:00 or 7:30, since she needed to stop at Broome Brothers at nine to discuss the final plans for the patriotic variety special they were sponsoring that night. This morning they were doing a sequence of pre-recorded programsshe was beginning to fear them lessmixed in with their remote broadcast of the President. In about a half hour, their last remote would be Victor's weekly commentary, this time from Washington, DC, which would serve as the opener to their special Armistice Day programming.
Betty glanced at the elevator, thought better of it, then trudged up the few flights of stairs, which gave her more time to mull over today's schedule. She and Victor had been planning it for several weeks, a mixture of their regular series with patriotic themes, and some special programs written just for the day. The cast should be upstairs looking over their scripts now; she had left them in the Green Room on her way out last evening along with a note to Gertie to remind everyone when they came in.
She had missed most of Bedside Manor between preparing for work and her trolley ride, but the portion she'd heard seemed to have been fine; Hilary's animosity seemed to have been set aside for the day, and she'd treated Jeff in a civilized, if still wary, manner. She sighed. The fight was getting old; she knew how hurt Hilary had been when she thought Jeff had married Pavla, but she also knew Jeff had done it for a good cause. If only Hilary would see that!
Suddenly her memory flickered: a vision of a beaten and weary Scott saying goodbye outside the writer's room.
That was different, she told herself firmly.
As she opened the front door, it was quiet in reception. One reason might have been the silent switchboard, but the major one was that Gertie was nowhere to be seen. Odd.
But when she peeked around the corner to the corridor running most of the length of the station, she realized and chuckled. The door to the Green Room was ajar, with Gertie's forearm resting on the outer portion; usually when she wanted to take part in a conversation and still cover the switchboard, she often stood in the doorway, one ear on the talk and the other on alert for the phones.
Betty slipped off her coat and hat, leaving them on the coat tree, then pinned one of the poppies over her left breast. It was a ritual as old as her childhood; she could remember being too young to handle the tiny brass safety pin and her father having to fasten the bright scarlet flower to her dress or coat.
As she approached the open door to the Green Room, still tweaking the stiff flower in place, she could hear someone speaking; a man's voice, gruff. Mr. Eldridge.
"...my youngest wasn't quite eighteen when war was declared. Stood right up and said, 'Papa, I'm going to join up with or without you. Nobody's going to think I'm a slacker.'"
She moved forward, close behind Gertie, who seemed too preoccupied with the story to even notice she had arrived. Perhaps it was because of the distressed tone in Mr. Eldridge's voice.
"You had to have seen Young Joewe called him 'Young Joe,' you see, because he was named for my brother Joe. Not a cowardly bone in his bodyYoung Joe, I mean. He'd have run off no matter what I did, so I signed his enlistment papers. He was in the ambulance corps and we thought he'd be safe there." There was a painful pause. "Straight as an arrow he was...looked so tall and handsome in his uniform. The last time we ever saw him was at the depot, standing there like he could conquer the world-"
When his voice trailed off, Gertie abruptly released the door and moved forward, so that Betty had to catch it before it swung back to strike her. Now she could see almost everyone in the room: Hilary sitting in one of the chairs, with Jeff behind her laying what looked like a comforting hand on her shoulder; Maple stepping away from the counter where she had been leaning to see if she could help Gertie, who was fumbling for her handkerchief.
"Here," Eugenia appeared suddenly from Betty's left, holding out her own handkerchief, a dainty square trimmed with lace fichu, wiping her own eye discreetly with a forefinger. "Here's mine, Mr. Eldridge."
Mr. Eldridge had his head bowed over his lap, now he looked up, eyes bright with tears. "Oh, mythank you, Eugenia...Gertrude. I'm fine, really. It's been so long..."
"Nonsense," Gertie said briskly, tucking her own handkerchief back in her blouse pocket, as he had taken Eugenia's proffered one instead. "That's what we're supposed to be doing today, isn't it? Remembering?"
"Betty!" Eugenia said brightly, startling her.
"We always remember Betty," was Mr. Eldridge's perplexed reply. "Good morning, my dear."
Mr. Foley, who had been sitting on the sofa next to Mr. Eldridge, opened his mouth as if to say good morning as well...
"Hiya, kid," Maple said, collecting herself, presenting a flashing smile to Betty. "Everything all set for the Broome Brothers tonight?"
It was the same Green Room as always, the muted light, the rich smell of Ingrams coffee brewing on the hotplate, the faint sweet scent of Eugenia's lily of the valley perfume, but Betty had the oddest feeling standing there that she didn't belong at that moment. Her eyes touched on each of her co-workersno, her friendsand she saw loss in them that she had never known. The poppies were the only connection she had to the holiday they were celebrating and she felt as if she were intruding upon their memoriesand their grief.
"Betty?" Maple regarded her questioningly.
"What? OhBroome Brothers, yes! Winslow Broome was very pleased at the final changes we made in the program." She turned to Hilary and to her surprise, saw that the woman's eyes brimmed with tears. "Harrison Broome is particularly looking forward to your Miss Liberty recitation, Hilary. He's a great admirer of yours."
"But of course," Hilary said airily, belying her haunted eyes, and to Betty's additional astonishment, she reached back and touched Jeff's hand.
The action further unnerved her. "But they asked for one or two more minor revisionsnothing radical, so don't worry about your scripts. But I do need to put the changes in while it's all fresh in my mindand I need to be in the control room at ten, when the program starts. Please excuse me," she said hurriedly, almost all in one breath.
To her intense irritation, she'd almost looked at her wristwatch and said "Oh, will you look at the time."
She was turning to flee so quickly her heart told her she was being rude, so she made herself turn back, ask Mr. Eldridge if he was okay. He responded softly that he was fine and then she could escape the sudden suffocation of the room and hurry away as fast as she could without looking as if she were running.
She stopped in the doorway to the writer's room, resting her head against the frame for a moment, her eyes closed. It was there Maple found her.
"Betty, you okay?"
She lifted her head, blinked, smiled in what she hoped was a serene manner. "I'm fine, Maple...it's just-"
"Did you lose some family in the war, too?" the redhead asked sympathetically. For Maple she was dressed almost as if she were in mourning, with a sober dark skirt and a bottle-green blouse that brought out the beautiful color of her hair. Pinned above her left breast, as it was on Betty, and had been on every person in the Green Room, was a poppy.
Betty focused on it for a moment, then asked earnestly, "May I talk to you a minute?"
Maple tilted her head sideways, "Sure, what's up, kid?"
Betty motioned her into the writer's room and shut the door. "I know this sounds silly, Maplebut I never know how to react to all this. And especially this year, what with war looking so close, it seems to make it worse."
When Maple looked perplexed, she continued, "I was only a baby when we declared war last time. Dad was head of the household by then and didn't have to go. His brother was in basic training when the Armistice was signed; in fact the only person I can remember who fought was my Uncle George, and all he ever talks about are the pranks the men in his unit played, and the songs they sang, and the French wine they drank. When folks start talking about people they've lost..." She shrugged. "I can't even begin to really ever know what they lost."
"You're being awfully hard on yourself, aren't you? I mean, I was just a little kid during that whole thing myself. Mosta what I remember is Liberty Bond parades and how I hated meatless days and wheatless days. Oh, yeah, and how Mr. Herbert Hoover was the big savior when he fed all those starving kids in Europe. Pretty sad when you consider how mean everyone was to him when the Crash came, huh? Now, my uncle Stan got drafted, but he came home okay. So I guess I can't really feel about it the way everyone else does, either."
Betty sank into her familiar chair next to the typewriter, and Maple sat down across from her. "I don't know, Maple. I'm writing about people who fought and died. About mothers and fathers whose sons never came home again. I just thought I should feel differently about it. Looking at Mr. Eldridge...and Hilary..."
"Yeah, I don't remember anyone talking about it last year the way they are this. I guess you're right about what's going on in Europe. They all see it coming again." Maple responded soberly. "You know it was Hilary who started all that in there? Honest. The President was talking about the war dead and she just started telling us about her fee-aun-cee. He was killed 'over there.' You coulda knocked me over with a feather when she started to cry and then let Jeff help her into that chair. He was telling us about his pop, toohis pop made it back, but he got gassed and was sick for the rest of his life. Jeff said he died a coupla years later and now what he remembers most about his pop is hearing him cough and how terrible it sounded."
"She lost her husbandsaid he wasn't even there two weeks. Not from getting shot even, but from something he caught in the trenches. Typhoid or something horrible like that. At least nobody got killed in Mr. Foley's story. You know that blowhard brother of hislike any of us could forget him tried to enlist? He was too young and they caught him forging his folks' signature on the enlistment papers." Maple chuckled at the recollection, but it was a short sound, not as much a laugh as a sardonic comment. "And that's when Mr. Eldridge got to talking about his boy. I wanted to bust out crying."
"And I suppose Scott had some ridiculous story about a relative of his running con games in the trenches," Betty said slightly bitterly, then recollected. "Waitwhere was Scott? And MackieI didn't see either of them in the Green Room."
"Mackie said he had to go back in the studiohe said in case C.J. needed him. Enid was already there, and I know she would have come got us, but I gotta feeling Mackie really didn't want to hear it all again. When Hilary was talking about her intended, he didn't say a whole lot. Just got 'that look' in his eye...you know. Scotty excused himself before Hilary even started talking; think he said he was heading for the Gents."
As Maple spoke, Betty's eyes had drifted down to the top of her typewriter, where, she finally noticed, someone had laid a script. In fact it was Scott's script, with words scrawled on it.
"I won't do this," the note said.
It was so blunt that she exclaimed, "What on earth does he mean he won't do it?"
"Who won't do what?" Maple asked, startled.
"Look at this," she said, rising, waving the script at Maple. "Who does he think he is?"
"I can't believe the nerve of that man sometimes-"
The rebuke in Maple's tone was so clear that Betty gaped in surprise. "Geez, Betty, maybe you can't understand this the way the others can, but you can at least cut some folks some slack. Don'tcha know Scotty lost his older brother in the war?"
Betty expelled her breath as if she'd been punched in the stomach. When she finally regained her composure, she bit her lip, then said wryly, "I'm not doing very well this morning, am I?"
"Nope," Maple answered frankly. She pursed her lips, then added forthrightly, "Betty...Scotty's got a real thick skin but...you can hurt him. You might not even know itever 'cause he covers real good."
Betty looked down at the script. "I suppose so."
Then she tucked the script under her arm, giving a resolute sigh. "Excuse me, Maple."
She didn't see Maple shake her head ruefully as she left the writer's room.
Embarrassed but determined, she tapped at the door to the Men's Lounge, opening it just a crack. "Scott? Are you there? I need to talk with you." When there was no answer from that venue, she continued to the storeroom in the same manner, then struggled to lift the heavy window that led out to the fire escape, flinching as the cold wind with its stinging particles of coal dust and city grime swirled about her head and shoulders. While she applauded the addition of the metal staircase in lieu of the indoor fire stairs for their safety value, she had to admit that lately the fire escape had performed a more valuable service: sheltering the bruised spirits of various WENN employees. Scott himself had taken refuge out there once and she was hoping he was there again.
But the fire escape was empty.
With a sigh, she shoved the window back down, brushed the soot from her hair and blouse, then returned to the corridorand had one more thought.
Silently, she opened the door to Studio B.
The lights were set low until the room should be needed, but there was enough illumination to see that Scott was straddling one of the stools that lined the far wall, his eyes on the floor. As she swung the door open, spreading a wide wedge of light on the polished floor, he cocked his head up at her.
"Hi, Betty," he said lightly.
"Good morning, Scott," she said, tense.
He motioned at the script under her arm. "Been expecting you. Here to chew me out?"
Her eyes flickered nervously to the paper, then back to him. "No."
"Ah, then you've talked to Mapes," he said, and now the light tone was deceptive. He slipped off the stool to come meet her, thumbs hooked in his trouser pockets. She took two steps forward.
"I always hated that poem," he said, before she could speak.
She had to protest. "It's a beautiful poem."
"Doesn't mean I can't hate it."
She shut the door behind her with a nearly inaudible click and stepped further into the room. "I thought it would be perfect for you, Scott. Because you were an ordinary man, like they were."
When he didn't respond, she added, "I was telling Maple, I was feeling out of place. There they all were in the Green Room, talking about their memories and it all happened before I was old enough to remember anything, except maybe wanting to ride on my dad's shoulders at the annual parade. Of course we all bought poppies every year-" Here she gently touched the plastic flower, then automatically looked to Scott's lapel, not surprised that it was bare. "-I remember when they were real. And that everything would stop at 11:11 for a minute of silence. We're going to be doing that today, too." Scott was silent, regarding her, and she found herself nervously explaining, "I know most people don't follow the custom any longer, but I thought it would be appropriate...with what's going on in Europe, for the men they've already lost."
She had been carrying the script in front of her, her arms crossed over it as if it were a shield protecting her. Now she tilted it forward, looked down at it. "Look, Scott, I suppose-"
Scott chose that moment to ask casually, "Would you like to see his picture?"
Startled, her eyes flashed to his, then she nodded mutely.
He reached into his suit jacket, withdrawing a large, old-fashioned pocket watch case engraved with scrolls which framed three elaborate, cursive initials.
"'MTF?'" she asked curiously, tucking the script back under her left arm so she could run a light finger over the beautiful case.
"Milton Thomas FinchAunt Aggie's husband. They never had a son, so when he died she gave it to me. Heck, I was at their house as much as mine; Uncle Milt probably thought I was his after a while."
He popped the case open to reveal the matching gold watch inside, carefully preserved, oiled and ticking quietly. Inside the front cover were two photographs, very small, cut into semicircles and set side-by-side, the older one in sepia tones of a serene but thin woman, the other a tinted black-and-white photo of a woman about the same age as the other, but a generation younger and with darker hair and eyes more like Scott's.
"Your mother?" Betty asked, not quite touching the older photo.
"Yeah. Probably about a year before she died. The other's my sister." For just a moment there was a mischievous lilt to his voice. "Elaine Nimue Sherwood Henderson."
Betty had to smile. "That's a pretty name. I take it your mom liked Arthurian legends?"
"All that knight and armor junk. Randy was after dad, so Mother had her turn with Laney. I won't tell you what she wanted to call mebut Dad stopped her, although I did end up with Arthur for a middle name."
It was on the tip of her tongue to say that at times it suited him, but she kept silent as he tipped the plump watch from its case into the palm of his hand. Behind the timepiece was another photo behind a sheet of clear celluloid, a young man in the fashions of the pre-war period, his dark hair parted in the middle and slicked down with hair oil, his eyes firmly on the camera as if he were someone to be reckoned with.
"You could almost have been twins," Betty said gently.
"Yeah." Scott regarded the photo thoughtfully. "He was about an inch taller than I am now, maybe a few pounds lighter, and he always looked like he stepped out of one of those magazine adsyou know, the Brooks Brothers typethe impeccable gentleman." He snorted, shook his head. "No effort to it at all. I used to swear he got out of bed that way. Not a hair out of place." He paused, then finished lightly, "Sometimes I hated his guts."
"Aw, c'mon Betty. Weren't you the one telling me once about your sister, the one who was sewing quilts for her hope chest in a summer heat wave? Are you going to tell me that sometimes you wished she wasn't quite so perfect?"
Betty smothered a laugh, her hand over her mouth to stifle most of it. "Oh, heavens, yes...but...like the time she came home from the County Fair with a blue ribbon for her patchwork and a red ribbon for her jam and her embroidery and all I got was scolded for not showing up for supper on time because I had my nose buried in a book I bought at the secondhand booth! I remember thinking I could have happily traded her for the prize pig that day!"
A smile, almost imperceptible, flashed on his lips, then was gone. "That was Randy. You've heard of people who can sell ice to Eskimos? Randy could have sold them bathing suits and beach umbrellas. And they'd have enjoyed them." Scott pursed his lips. "I've got to hand it to himhe was eight years old when I was born. Half his life he had a little brother tagging after him, trying to do everything he did. He was pretty swell about it, though. He taught me one mean game of poker-" He chuckled. "And a great shell game technique, for when things got their worst. I got my best learning from him, but it didn't seem to matter after he was goneDad never..."
Abruptly, he stopped, looked away, then focused back on the photo.
"He died," he continued, his tone more offhand, "only a few weeks before the Armistice. Whatever the battle was, it was so bad that it took them weeks to recover his body. They buried him there, of course. No way to get the body home. We postponed the memorial service until spring. Dad asked me to recite that damn poem at the service. I didn't want to. I guess I thought if I didn't show up he wouldn't really be dead."
His brow furrowed in memory. "Randy had a troopmate who was one of the guys that recovered the bodies. He stayed on after the Armistice, on a graves detail and wrote to us afterwards. Want to know the kicker, Betty? My impeccable brother was found buried in the mud. They had to ID him from his tags."
Swallowing hard, he took one final look at the photo, then covered it with the watch, snapped the case shut with finality. "Later on the guy sent us a photo of the gravesite, and where they found the body, tooback then mothers wanted 'em, so they knew where their boy fell. He took it right about the time we had the service, in the spring, and all over what was left of the trenches were poppies." He put the watch back in his jacket pocket, buttoned the front, unconsciously straightening. "There's something in the paper about that; that the reason for the poppies is that they grow well only if the ground has been stirred up. After the battles there were more poppies than anyone ever imagined."
She hardly knew what to say. "At least you had that."
There was just an edge of anger in his voice. "I had nothing. I only saw the snapshots the day they arrived. I think Dad threw them out. After the memorial service he gave away Randy's clothes, put all his photos up in a trunk, locked it away. Never talked about him again. I thought I might get one of his suits, or his baseball kitbut it was all gone. Like he never existed." He patted his jacket. "Except for that picture. When Aunt Agatha gave me the watch, that came with it. Neither of us mentioned it to dad."
She bowed her head until she could control the tears in her eyes. She knew if he saw her crying it would embarrass him. And really, what could she say? There was only something she could do.
Casually, she lifted her head, showing him her watch. "Oh, will you look at the time. Our broadcast will be starting in a few minutes."
He misinterpreted her and the expression in his eyes was wistful. "Time for Victor's opening."
Funny, in the last few minutes she'd forgotten about that, even forgotten how odd she had felt among memories not hers.
She took a breath, straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, then pulled his discarded script from under her arm. "Why don't I swap this out with something of Mackie's? You may not be the man of a thousand voices, but you've got a good couple of dozen. I'll find something else that works for you."
She had taken only a step away from him when he said, "Wait," and reached out, plucking the script from her hand.
He shrugged. "Maybe it's time for Randolph Lewis Sherwood Junior to exist again."
"Are you sure?"
The cocky expression almost reappeared on his face. "Sure, Betty, piece of cake."
As their eyes met Betty had the oddest feeling time had slipped away and she was looking at him again through the glass of the control room from the set of a quiz show with the same feeling of mutual understanding.
She reached into her skirt pocket, fished out the second poppy that Jake Brewster had given her for her dime. Stepping forward, she deftly pinned it on his lapel.
"Don't want to forget that," she said.
"Not any more," he agreed, and they left the studio together.
"In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields."
John McCrae, 1915
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