NOTICE: This story contains a few words of strong language and a few non-polite ethnic references. This was to try to accurately reflect the thoughts of the time and era and is not intended as insult or slur.
"What Needs Doing"
A Remember WENN story
by Linda M. Young
It was only his second bourbon.
He wasn't trying to get drunk, simply to relax enough to get to sleep, to face tomorrow.
Tonight it seemed impossible that one could ever sleep or relax again. It was nearly one a.m. and on Sunday nights that was usually the best time, the noise from the barrooms and pool halls at street level stilled.
He drifted to the single soot-smirched window of the one-room apartment he had been forced to take when Pruitt's audit had tossed him from the gravy train. It didn't bother him. He'd slept in worse spots, noisier places most nights even a brawl wouldn't wake him unless the paddy wagons showed up.
Everything was closed up tight, the round windows of the Shamrock across the way two shuttered eyes, but the streets were still unsettled. Right now the weary cop on the beat was shrilling his whistle, gesturing yet another knot of young men to their homes, men still talking in strained, hard voices, gathered on the corners and under the pools of streetlights, fists clenched at their sides. It was below zero out, and their breath along with hastily chain-smoked cigarettes made snowy puffs at mouths and noses, but they didn't seem to notice, stamping feet as if only an automatic gesture of the body to keep warm.
It reminded him to relax fists clenched so hard most of the day that they now ached when flexed.
He took another sip of the bourbon.
Christ, what a day. First Cribby Menlo running roughshod through the station, only to turn out to be a decent player in the game. Scott Sherwood smiled in private satisfaction thinking of the con that was about to be pulled on Pavla Nemkova. Oh, to watch that, to see her made a fool of as she had tried to do to Hilary. Or better yet, to see her in three months, when Cribby's little plan was finished and the little bitch was out on the street. He hoped she'd enjoy being dragged through the dirt.
That is, if Cribby was able to carry out his original plan. Things had changed the moment Betty had walked into the room, her face ashen, holding the sheet torn from the teletype.
Scott watched as yet another group of men shuffled away, perhaps home, while two other young men appeared below, standing on the last step of the stoop of the aging brownstone next door. He recognized them by sight only, the two sons of Callum Duffy who ran the Irish Shamrock across the street, both in their very late teens, tall angular young men with strong shoulders who helped their father with the heavy work at the tavern.
They stood puffing on their smokes, talking earnestly to each other, hands gesturing. It was too dark to make out their faces, but Scott already knew the expression they wore as well as his own face. He'd seen it on every young man that day on the street, on the trolley, gathered in knots before the movie houses and the candy stores. And he knew what they were saying, too.
"I'm gonna join up tomorrow..."
"Geddada here. Yer ma won't let ya..."
"The old lady ain't gonna have nothing to say about it; Pop'll back me..."
"I'd have to lie about my age to get in, but if that's what I have to do..."
"My dad'll sign for me...he fought in 1918..."
"When I told my mother I was joining up in the morning, she started crying. So the neighbors could hear her, f'God's sake! She says 'No, Tony, no,' and I say, 'Mamma, we can't let them little slant-eyed Japs do that to us...'"
"We'll show those bastards they can't do that to us. We'll get over there and...pow!"
The language got rougher as the day progressed. Oddly, the women who usually protested were silent. One elderly woman passing the Buttery as Scott emerged with hastily grabbed sandwiches that would serve as supper had shaken a finger at a scrawny redheaded kid, still in knickers, who called the Japs "rat bastards." Otherwise the ladies had just looked grim.
The interns from the Aldwych Academy had appeared within a half hour of Mackie's carefully controlled announcement about the carnage at Pearl Harbor. No one outside the studio could have seen the expression on his face; Scott wasn't certain if he wanted to cry or to break someone limb from limb. Probably both. Gus Kahana had calmly joined Mackie at the microphone and they did bulletins through the early afternoon when any bit of news trickled in. Maple, bless her, had wiped away tears and gone to the organ and played song after song, Souza marches, the national anthem, anything that was patriotic, until Betty dug up some scripts to cover the aborted football game. She had chosen uncomplicated things, an old episode of This Girl's Kinfolk, an adaptation of Tom Sawyer, things to assure the audience that the world had not completely tilted asunder, and then disappeared into the writer's room. The sound of staccato typing followed.
Enid Fairleigh had come, too, her usually placid, sweet face strained with anxiety, her eyes red and swollen. She spent over twenty minutes at the door to Studio A, her eyes on Gus and Mackie while her hands nervously wadded and wrung a lace-trimmed handkerchief, then disappeared. When Scott had hurried into the storeroom to get some cough drops for Mackie, he'd seen her huddled next to the window. After delivering the badly needed lozenges and unsuccessfully trying to get the stubborn man to take a break Scott had padded back down the corridor.
He picked a safe, stock line. "You gonna be okay?" he asked as she glanced up when she saw him coming.
To his surprise, normally reserved Enid broke into tears. He found himself with her buried in his arms, letting her sob softly for a few minutes, feeling out of place and uncomfortable. Enid clung to him, then, as if realizing suddenly where she was, gave a big sniffle and pulled back. "Oh, Mr. Sherwood, I'm so sorry. I wasn't trying to be forward!"
"Hey," he said, pulling out his own handkerchief and wiping her tears, "It's Scott, remember?"
"Scott," she repeated with a desperate half smile, as if the name was foreign. "I didn't...didn't mean to take advantage of your sympathy...I...you see...my brother..."
Scott nodded in understanding and in what he hoped was sympathy. Betty's tight grief after Victor's supposed death had been more what he was used to. Sherwoods didn't cry. They made jokes, they got back up again, brushed the dirt and blood off, started over. "He's old enough for the draft?"
"He turned eighteen just recently. On Thanksgiving Day, to be precise." Her eyes began to well up again, and she blinked them clear grimly. "I know Colin. He won't wait to be drafted. He'll be at the recruiting office tomorrow morning."
"If it's any comfort," Scott said after a moment, "he won't be alone."
"It's not," Enid said, with a little wail in her voice. "I heard them talking downstairs. They all act as if they want to go. It's like some great big game to them, not something that could get them killed."
He'd wonder afterwards where the words came from. "Don't let them fool you they know. But...if you think about it, you won't be able to do...what needs doing." She looked startled. "I guess what I'm saying is that all the best acting tonight isn't here at WENN."
"Scott? Scott! Scott Sherwood, where on earth are you?" There was the tap of quick heels in the hall, then Betty appeared, waving a script and looking exasperated. Her eyes widened as she saw them still within arm's distance of each other.
"Oh, Miss Roberts," Enid said, so quickly that Scott hadn't time to open his mouth. "Please don't be angry with Mr. Sherwood. I was upset...and he tried to comfort me." She ducked her head, abashed. "I was talking about my brother-"
A brief look of fear flickered across Betty's face and Scott interposed hastily, "What is it you need, Betty?"
"I-" She recovered quickly, explaining, "Here, take this to the studio. Mackie needs a break. It's for you and Maple. Please tell Hilary and Jeff I'm working on something for them tell Hilary I'll need her especially. Please."
"Sure, Betty." He had found hard to draw a breath as she left as swiftly as she appeared. Betty had a brother; she'd mentioned him several times. What was it she said he did? Farming, wasn't it? He probably wouldn't have to worry about the draft; necessary war work made him exempt.
Unless he too showed up sometime in the next a.m. at the Elkhart recruiting office.
He gave Enid's shoulder an awkward pat, delivered Betty's message to Hilary and Jeff, then vanished into the studio, collaring Maple and giving Mackie a much needed rest.
It was if Betty had been reading the minds of the crowd below, of himself and Enid as they had talked. She'd titled their little story Quiet Sunday, a simple tale of newlyweds who had just found out about Pearl Harbor. The script showed its haste in awkward wording, and there was a wet blotch upon the page where the young husband was telling his wife he would be volunteering next day, but he and Mapes made due.
By the time they had finished, Eugenia had returned. She too looked as if she had been crying, but she resolutely marched to the organ, took off her gloves, and went to work.
"You gotta hand it to Sherwood women," his father had boasted once. "They can stand up with the best of 'em. Not whiny little weepers like those other fair flowers out there."
His dad should meet the women here.
Hilary and Jeff were waiting at the door as he and Maple exited. They had seemed to have ironed out their differences for the moment, whether it was because of the shock of the news or perhaps earlier with Cribby's revelation. Hilary was old enough, although she'd deny it strenuously, to remember the last war, and that had shown in her eyes from the moment Betty had read the teletype. Had Hilary, Scott suddenly wondered, lost a sweetheart back then? He could picture Hilary in the long straight shirtwaists of the time, ones like his future sister-in-law had worn...
"Scotty, dear," Hilary said regally, "perhaps you might let me by? Or shall I plan to deliver my lines from the hall?"
"Oh...yeah." He had sidestepped, trying to ignore the curious glance both Hilary and Maple gave him.
"You all right, Scott?" Maple asked him in concern.
"Fine, Mapes," he answered automatically, because the memory of Amy Crawford had suddenly been too close for comfort and because he could read the preoccupied expression on Jeff Singer's face all too well.
They stood watching through the glass of the studio doors as Eugenia consulted the script, then began to play "God Bless America" in a stately manner. Betty had poured all her energy into The Voice of Liberty, a pastiche of patriotism with Hilary as the voice of the Statue of Liberty and Jeff as the Voice of Americans. He heard Maple sniffle not fifteen minutes into the production, then retreated, because his throat was dangerously tight.
Reception was no place to retreat. The phones had been bedlam all afternoon, with Mr. Eldridge hurrying to supply Gertie with coffee and water from the water fountain. As the afternoon wore on he even warmed lemonade for her, and Scott had dug out more of the cough drops from the storage room. Someone would need to make an emergency run to the drugstore next day. Even now she was repeating for the hundredth time, "Yes, ma'am, we'll go on the air just as soon as there's more news. Stay tuned to WENN."
Mr. Eldridge was quiet for the moment, sitting rather dazedly in one of the seats in reception.
"You okay, Mr. Eldridge?"
The elderly man asked sorrowfully, "Can you really ask that, Scott?" He had a photo in his hand, one Scott had seen him surreptitiously pull from his pocket all afternoon. "This is my great-nephew Harry. It's not okay." His voice grew reproachful. "It will never be okay."
"I was just making small talk, Mr. Eldridge," Scott said quickly.
The old man's eyes clouded. "Small talk. No more time for small talk. Now we have to talk big...and my boy has to go with them..."
Rattled, Scott had decided it was a good time to go to the Buttery for sandwiches.
Mackie had eaten his meatloaf sandwich without emotion or appetite. While Scott was gone, more news had come clattering over the teletype, reaction, news from around the country, news from the White House. Mackie had immediately snatched the papers from Betty's hands. If it had been any other day, it would have been an appalling rudeness, but today they had only silently watched him stride into the studio and take his place at the microphone once more.
By now it was several hours after dark, and outside snowflakes flecked the air. Ordinarily on a day this close to Christmas, the sight of snow might have generated chat about the upcoming holiday. Instead they sat, watching Mackie, or making more coffee. Enid spelled Gertie at the switchboard. No one talked much.
Then Maple rose, crossed to Betty's side, murmured something in her ear. For the first time since early afternoon, Betty looked relieved, then grateful, nodding. In turn, Maple touched Hilary's shoulder, then Eugenia's, finally Gertie's. Gertie shook her head, leaning her head back down on the chair she had collapsed in, but the other four women left the room.
Before departing, Maple tapped Scott on the shoulder. "We're going to take a little breather, Scotty. Hold the fort, okay?"
Scott rose. "Where..."
"We won't be too long." Maple patted his shoulder.
Within a few seconds, the room became emptier. Mackie kept talking. Jeff kept pacing the halls. Gus rose to leave the room.
He was suffocating.
"I'll be back," Scott said. He walked to the door, lengthened his stride to the coat closet, was at a jog by the time he reached the door. He dashed outside the front door just in time to see Maple's scarlet coat flash in the pool of light splashed under the streetlamp, then vanish around the corner.
He calmed the pounding of his heart as he followed, stride continually broken to skirt patches of ice on badly shoveled sidewalks. As he continued, keeping a discreet distance behind them, he wondered what he was doing. He should be back at WENN. It wasn't too late to turn around. Yet he pressed forward, not back, bared head bowed a little against the evening cold.
They had turned yet another corner and walked more than two blocks when Scott saw them stop before a large building, then mount the steps and go inside. They picked their way up carefully, threading through throngs of people standing outside, and as he caught up to them, he recognized what the building was: a church. Catholic, if the "St. Mary's" plaque in bronze next to the inlaid double doors was any indication. He was pretty sure Maple was Catholic, at least once upon a time, but...well, now he could go back. He'd satisfied his curiosity, gotten some air, chased away the inexplicable panic.
The doors were wide open, braced not by doorstops but by the press of people entering and exiting. From inside he heard voices. Prayers, he surmised. That's what they did in churches. He didn't know much about prayer. He relied upon himself.
But when the crowd at the door parted for a moment, some irresistible urge drew him up the steps.
Inside it was dim, lit by carved lamps chained to a huge ceiling vaulted overhead, one painted in blue with stars and clouds creating an illusion of sky. The heat, strong with the scent of incense, struck him at once, the combined effect of steam heat and the press of bodies in woolen coats and hats. The entire sanctuary was elbow-to-elbow with people. They crowded the pews, stood in the aisles. Most of them were women, but Scott spotted elderly men, children held by the hand, even a spotting of middle-aged and younger men. Class barriers seemed broken: matrons in minks stood next to careworn black domestics. Looking for refuge from the news, they had come here. It didn't even seem to matter if it wasn't their church. Some people were praying, some were crying openly, some smothering their face in a handkerchief or scarf.
No one stood at or around the ornate altar decorated off to one side with vases of poinsettias and a manger scene; only a huge crucifix rose above the thick crowds. The pained face of the Saviour looked as if it were more creased with sorrow at the day's events. Instead of serving Mass, three priests stepped from person to person, saying a word here or there, touching hands, occasionally giving what looked to Scott like a blessing to one young man or another.
He could see his friends from the corner of his eye, tucked in the left aisle under a numbered portrait of Jesus. Hilary kept her bearing as always, as if not even a war could destroy her self-confidence, but he could see her swallow, once, twice, again, as her lips moved soundlessly. Maple had her head bowed, staring at her clasped hands, and Eugenia was nervously wiping her eyes.
Betty stood to the rear of her friends, eyes fixed upon the crucifix. For the first time since early afternoon, she looked calm, her chin raised in a resolute note. She could be going out to meet the enemy herself.
They had come looking for some sort of comfort. He hoped they found it, but the knowledge of what probably was to come overwhelmed him. He turned on his heel and hurried away, back to the station, just as Gus was returning from walking Mr. Eldridge home. Gertie was back at the switchboard, although the calls were running down. Everyone who needed to hear the news evidently had already heard.
The rest of the evening was a blur. The women returned about a half hour later, subdued but serene. Mackie continued to parcel out what news they already had, including the announcement of President Roosevelt's special broadcast next day. Gus went home to his family, and Scott spelled Mackie for about an hour. While he was on, Jeff and Hilary, feeling helpless, also left for home, as did Gertie.
At eleven p.m. Lester gratefully shut everything down. There was no small talk as they shrugged into their coats, pulled on scarves and gloves and hats. Whatever emotion remained stayed bottled inside them. When they reached the streets, the knots of people were gone, but the young men, talking on the streetcorners, remained.
Scott found himself beside Betty as she walked to the trolley stop. It was an automatic gesture. She didn't protest and he desperately didn't want her to go. But when the trolley squealed to a halt, he handed her up the steps and she thanked him gently.
The glass of scotch was empty. One for the road?
He decided against it, collapsed instead at the edge of the bed. He was still dressed, having tossed only his shoes aside when he'd finally gotten upstairs.
It had taken him a few minutes to reach solitude, for before he'd finished closing the door to the dingy lobby of his rooming house, the grubby, balding night clerk had called his name.
"Hey, Sherwood, you think I'm running an answering service here? Some old dame's been calling you for the past hour. Been driving me nuts. Says she'll call again in ten minutes. Hey, make sure you don't tie up the blower forever this ain't no hotel."
"Don't worry, Scal. No one would ever mistake this joint for a hotel," Scott retorted, settling in the cracked seat of one of the leather chairs put into the lobby when the place had seen better days. When the battered candlestick phone seated on the equally battered table rang a few minutes later, Scott shot a glance at a bored-looking Scally, then answered it.
"I have a call for Mr. Scott Sherwood," the operator said, "from Nantucket, Massachusetts."
"I'm Sherwood. I'll take it."
"Thank you, sir." The line clicked and crackled, then settled into a long faint hiss of static. Before anyone could speak, Scott answered, "Hi, Aggie."
There was a pause, then his Aunt Agatha's voice, still a bit thick from her stroke. "Were you expecting me?"
"Who else would call me at this hour on a day like today?"
"Well, I did try phoning you at WENN. First that fool son-in-law of mine tried to keep me from the radio. He didn't want to 'agitate' me, he said. I'll show him what agitate means if he doesn't quit fussing over me like some overwrought chicken." She paused. "When I finally did get to the phone, the line was always busy. If I were the type that liked that kind of twaddle, the operator and I could have exchanged recipes by now."
Scott said softly, "We've been busy, Aunt Agatha. What did you need?"
"I'm not the one that needs anything," she said firmly. "I am calling to tell you not to do it."
He prompted, "Not to..."
"Don't play the fool with me, Scubby. I put iodine on your skinned knees and fed you supper when that lazy housekeeper your father hired decided to go home early. You don't have to go. Let them wait to come get you."
He could have been glib, but by then he was too exhausted and thinking too much. "The way Randy waited? Look what happened to him."
Scott expected the silence at the end of the line. Randolph Jr. was one of the closed chapters in the Sherwood books. Once Randy was gone, the talk about him ended. Except for the photos in the house, hastily shoved away in drawers, it might have been as if he never existed.
Dad used to joke to Scott that he was an afterthought a boy finally born eight years after their only son and daughter, to a mother already ill from a succession of three miscarriages and the sorrow of an eight-month-old dead of diphtheria. Pneumonia whisked her away when he was eight, Elaine married early (to "get out of this crazy family," she'd said), and Randy, at sixteen already the image of one of Charles Dana Gibson's male illustrations, had quit school. His smooth good looks made you think of young bankers or solid young men training for baccalaureates; people trusted him immediately. By eighteen he was well-versed enough in the Sherwood "arts" to earn his own living, and was doing so quite comfortably five years later, engaged to be married to Amy Crawford, when the draft came.
Randy seemed indestructible. He wrote lively letters home about his crooked poker games and the schemes that still worked among men up to their knees in the fetid water of the trenches. Only occasionally and how Dad glossed those passages over! he would write about mustard gas attacks, trench foot, dying compatriots.
He died two weeks before the armistice, as the plaintive songs of the time said, "somewhere in the woods of France."
"Scott, now listen to me," Agatha Sherwood Finch began again. "There's no need to prove yourself to anyone, let alone her."
The word startled him. "'Her'?"
"Your Miss Roberts. For heaven's sake, I'm old, not blind," she said impatiently.
He'd said quietly, "She's not 'my' anything, Aunt Aggie."
"Could have fooled me. I saw the way you looked at her." Her voice grew crafty. "And the way she looked at you."
Not any longer, he thought to himself with regret.
Then he had laughed, trying to cover. "C'mon, Aggie. Whether I join up or they come for me, what's the worst that could happen? I made it out of Singapore, didn't I? I'm the cat that always lands on my feet. Piece of cake."
Scally was beginning to glare at him, so he added hurriedly, "Someone needs to use the phone, Aunty. I have to go."
"Tell me you won't do anything foolish," she demanded.
"I won't do anything foolish," he repeated.
"A Sherwood to the last," she'd rasped, understanding, and had hung up.
Now he stretched out on the bed, not caring whether he undressed or not.
"Sorry, Aggie," he said aloud. "I do have to go."
For Betty Roberts alone? Maybe. But perhaps also for Betty Roberts' right to tap out the adventures of freedom fighters and maverick adventurers, for Eugenia Bremer to be able to play the compositions of Mendelssohn, for Hilary Booth to declaim in public that "all men shall be created equal." For Victor Comstock to promote patriotism and Mackie Bloom to promote the Saturday Evening Post. For the people gathered on the street today to speak how they wished, the swells and the scrubs of St. Mary's to pray to whom they wished.
And even for the inalienable right of a Sherwood to con the pants off some unsuspecting victim.
The line at the recruiting office would probably form early tomorrow. He set his alarm, shut the light.
The last thing he heard before he fell asleep was the faint call of the beat cop, once again asking the men to go home.
Return to Linda's Remember WENN Fanfiction Page