A Woman's Place
Virginia Mitchell watched her husband carve the Sunday pot roast and wondered if he was having an affair. He showed more interest in the way the meat was cooked than he did in her. Harold traveled out of town often with his work, so he had plenty of opportunities to stray. He would leave tomorrow on another trip, in fact. He set down the carving knife and nodded his approval.
"Roast beef looks good, Virginia. Not dry or stringy."
She sighed with relief. "I was afraid it might be ruined. The sermon went a little long."
"The new pastor likes to beat a dead horse." Harold gave her his charming smile, revealing an endearing dimple in his left cheek.
Virginia never should have married a man as handsome and intelligent as Harold Mitchell. She worried constantly that he would find another woman who was more stimulating than she was, someone who made her seem dull and boring in comparison. Virginia always sifted through his pockets when he came home from a trip and searched every compartment of his suitcase for telltale signs that he'd been with another woman. She even sniffed his shirt collars and the lapels of his suits for traces of perfume. Once or twice she thought she'd detected an unfamiliar scent.
Worry consumed her the way her family was consuming this Sunday meal: Harold piled thick slices of meat onto his plate; nine-year-old Allan shoveled forkfuls of mashed potatoes into his mouth; seven-year-old Herbert gulped down Jell-O as if racing against time. If only she knew for certain that Harold really was having an affair.
But then what would she do? Ginny had thought it through countless times as she'd searched his pockets. She couldn't leave him; how would she support herself and her sons on her own? She would have to find a job, and she wasn't qualified to be anything except a housewife.
She watched Harold pour gravy over his mashed potatoes and thought that maybe it was better if she didn't know for certain. This way she wouldn't be forced to decide whether to live with the knowledge in silence, forgive him, or leave him. She found it difficult enough to decide what to fix for dinner, let alone wrestle with questions of infidelity and trust. Ginny didn't kid herself—you could never trust a man once he became a philanderer.
She had chosen philanderer for her newest vocabulary word. It meant someone who made a habit of cheating on his spouse. For more than a year, Ginny had used a thesaurus and a dictionary to try to improve her vocabulary, hoping to converse more intelligently for Harold's sake and to feel less inferior for her own sake. She had purchased the two books during her one and only year in college, and they'd done nothing but collect dust ever since—except for the odd time she'd used them to press flowers. She had looked up playboy in the thesaurus, recalling that Harold had a reputation as one before they'd met. The word playboy had led to philanderer.
Was he one? Did she really want to know? She watched him stab a forkful of green beans, and her chest ached with love for him. If only he loved her half as much as she loved him.
Harold took charge of the dinner conversation, as usual, asking the boys about their schoolwork and Boy Scout projects. Ginny had nothing new to report about her week. She felt dumb, dull, vacuous—another vocabulary word. Her life was uninteresting and boring, day in and day out. If only she could do exciting, challenging things, be a woman of vision and purpose like Eleanor Roosevelt. Then Harold would have no reason to philander.
The candle flames blurred as her eyes filled with tears. Did anyone even notice the pains she took to make Sunday dinner special: lighting candles, using her good china and silverware, spreading the table with a white damask tablecloth and napkins? Sunday was the one day when her little family was home together all day, and she liked to make it special. They always attended church, dressed in their Sunday finest, the boys looking like little men in their jackets and ties. Ginny was in no hurry for Allan and Herbert to grow up. She wished they were still babies, or at least chubby toddlers in short pants. Harold chided her constantly for babying them too much.
Virginia watched the mashed potatoes and Jell-O vanish, the pot roast shrink to scraps of leftovers. All too soon, Harold and the boys had gobbled down the apple pie she'd baked, excused themselves from the table, and disappeared into the living room. Harold sighed as he slouched into his armchair with the Sunday Times. The boys sprawled on the floor with the family dog and the funny papers. Maybe Ginny should do more than skim the news. Maybe she should take an interest in the events over in Europe the way Harold did. Maybe other women would pose less of a temptation if she could discuss current events with him.
But current events would have to wait until she'd washed and dried the dishes. Virginia surveyed the abandoned table and wanted to cry. All that work: ironing the tablecloth and napkins, peeling the potatoes, cutting up the green beans, making sure the meat was seasoned just right and the gravy wasn't lumpy, rolling out the piecrust, peeling the apples, slicing them to a uniform thickness—an hour and a half of work in a steamy kitchen and the meal was over in twenty-two minutes. It would take her another hour to clean it all up. And it was such vacuous work. No wonder Harold was bored with her ... she was bored with herself. She wished she were bolder, smarter, more confident—like Eleanor Roosevelt.
Virginia was drying the last of the pots and pans when the telephone rang. "Ginny! Are you listening to the radio?" her next-door neighbor asked breathlessly.
"You'd better turn it on. We've been attacked."
"Attacked? What do you mean?" But Betty had already hung up. Ginny hurried into the living room, stepping over Harold's outstretched legs and Allan's strewn comic books as she made her way to the radio. The humpbacked Philco came to life with a hollow ploink.
"Who was on the phone?" Harold asked as the radio tubes warmed up.
"Betty Parker. She said we should turn on the radio. Something about an attack." Static squealed as Ginny adjusted the knob, finally tuning in to a channel. It took a moment for the announcer's words, reported in somber tones, to sink in.
"Thick smoke is still billowing from the United States' Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, where the U.S. Pacific Fleet is anchored, and from Hickham Field, where more than one hundred U.S. planes have reportedly been destroyed on the ground. There is still no word on how many ships were damaged. So far, at least two hundred servicemen are confirmed dead, but the death toll is expected to rise."
Harold lowered his newspaper and sat forward on the edge of his seat. Allan looked up from Little Orphan Annie, his eyes wide. "What happened, Dad?"
"Shh ... listen."
"Witnesses report that the emblem of the rising sun was visible on the wing tips of the attacking airplanes. There are unconfirmed reports that the Japanese used aircraft carriers to ferry the planes within striking distance. Once again, we repeat: This morning at approximately 7:55 a.m. local time, the nation of Japan launched a surprise attack on our American military bases in Hawaii, causing widespread devastation. President Roosevelt is reportedly meeting with high-level Washington officials and is expected to ask Congress to declare war."
War! The word sent a chill of fear through Ginny. What would happen to her children, her home? Would Harold have to go away and fight? At age thirty-five he was eligible for the draft. She gazed around at the room that had seemed so safe and secure a moment ago and felt as if the Japanese had attacked her house. The walls suddenly seemed flimsy and vulnerable, her children frail bundles of flesh and bones, a heartbeat from death.
"Harold! What are we going to do?"
"Now, Virginia, take it easy."
"But we've been attacked! What if the Japanese invade us?"
"You worry too much. It's my job to protect this family."
"But I feel so helpless! I want to do something!"
He gave her an indulgent look. "I could use a cup of coffee. Is there any left?"
Coffee? All she could do was make coffee? Virginia realized that he was serious, that he was dismissing her, and she stepped over the dog and the scattered newspaper pages to return to the kitchen. She could hear Harold and the boys talking about the Japanese Empire and the war in Europe as she set the pot of leftover coffee on the burner and lit the stove.
"Here, I'll show you on a map, Herbert," she heard Harold say above the sound of rustling newspaper pages.
The radio announcer continued to describe the devastation, her sons were asking worried questions, and all Ginny could do was stand in the kitchen waiting for the coffee to reheat. She knew that her life couldn't possibly continue the way it always had—everything had suddenly changed. Her country had been attacked, and her nation would be engulfed in another terrible world war. She felt helpless.
"I want to do something," she said aloud.
Virginia recalled her earlier fears that Harold was having an affair, and they suddenly seemed trivial in comparison.
Miss Helen Kimball lay in bed, listening to the distant toll of church bells, and for the first time in her life she saw no reason to attend Sunday services. As of this morning, she no longer believed in God. When the alarm clock had awakened her for church at the usual time, she had shut it off and remained resolutely in bed, gazing out of her bedroom window at the wintry tree branches. But now the aroma of coffee had begun to drift up to her room, and she found it irresistible. She climbed from beneath the sheets, put on her robe and slippers, and went downstairs to the cavernous kitchen.
Minnie, her parents' housekeeper, stood at the sink, humming as she peeled potatoes for the noon meal. A Sunday hat perched on her wooly gray hair, and she wore her best Sunday dress beneath her apron. Minnie turned when she heard Helen enter, and her dark eyes widened in surprise.
"Why, Miss Helen! I thought you'd off and gone to church already, and here you are in your nightclothes. You feeling sick?"
"No, I'm perfectly fine." She found a mug in the cupboard and poured herself a cup of coffee. Minnie set down her paring knife and dried her hands on her apron.
"Let me fix you some breakfast, then."
"No, you go ahead and finish what you're doing. I can make myself some toast."
Minnie's dark face wore a worried expression as she watched Helen pull a loaf of bread from the bread box and place two slices in the toaster. "Ain't you gonna be late for church, Miss Helen?"
"I'm not going."
"Not going? What else you be doing, then?"
"Well ... I'm not really sure what I'll do all morning. But I know I'm not going to spend it singing hymns and spouting creeds and yawning through a meaningless sermon. What's the point of going to church if I don't believe any of it?"
"Since when ain't you believing?"
"I don't know," Helen said with a shrug. "But I finally realized it this morning, so I decided it was better to stay home than to be a hypocrite."
"Now, you can't go losing your faith, Miss Helen. Don't you know the Bible says, 'What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?'"
"Yes, I do recall reading that verse," Helen said as she checked to see how the toast was progressing. "And it surely does apply to me. The doctors say that I'll inherit Father's estate in a few months—more money than I can possibly spend in my lifetime. Especially since I'll be fifty years old soon, and my life is certainly more than half over."
Her life might continue, but Helen knew that her soul was definitely lost. It had shriveled up inside her and died quite some time ago. As of this morning, she no longer cared.
When Minnie didn't respond, Helen looked up. Minnie's worried expression had transformed into speechless shock. "Don't mind me, Minnie," Helen said as she spread butter on her toast. "You'd better finish peeling those potatoes or you'll be late for church yourself."
"Now, how can I be thinking about church or potatoes when you're talking this way?"
"Better yet, leave the potatoes, and I'll finish them myself. It'll give me something useful to do." She carried her toast and coffee to the kitchen table and sat down.
"You already got plenty to do, taking care of your mama and daddy the way you been doing." Minnie moved the colander of potatoes from the sink to the table so she could face Helen while she continued peeling them. "You don't mean what you're saying, Miss Helen. You just wore out, that's all."
"No, actually, I'm not. Between you and the nurses, I don't have much to do at all. In fact, I'm more bored than tired. Last year at this time I was still teaching second grade, and Sunday was a welcome day of rest before another week of school. Now it's just another endless day like all the others as I try to keep from going crazy or roasting to death in this huge, overheated monstrosity of a house. Do you know that no matter how high I set the furnace or how many blankets I pile on mother's sickbed, she still complains that she's cold? The calendar says December, but it feels like August in here."
"You trying to change the subject on me, Miss Helen?"
"In fact, I may not get dressed at all today. Who's going to see me? It's the nurses' day off, and my parents never have any visitors. All their friends are either dead or too old to make sick calls."
"Why don't you invite some of your own friends over?"
Helen stood and carried her plate to the sink without replying. She didn't have any friends—but that was by choice.
"If you don't mind, Minnie, I think I'll listen to the radio in your sitting room. I need to hide in there until after noon in case Father feels well enough to putter around downstairs today. He'll want to know why I'm playing hooky from church, and I don't feel like explaining why I no longer believe in God."
"Miss Helen! I don't believe a word you say. You know perfectly well there's a God."
"Well, if there is, then my father is the spitting image of Him. They're both rich, both powerful, and they both like to order people around like pawns in a chess game. Neither one of them has ever shown much love, and any decisions they've ever made for me suited their own interests, not mine. Together, they've ruined my life."
Minnie gazed at Helen in disbelief. "Now you got me good and worried, Miss Helen. I been working here more than twenty years, and I ain't never heard you talk this way before."
"Even though Father knows he's dying, his heart hasn't softened in the least. I resigned from my teaching job and rented my home to tenants so I could move in here and take care of him and Mother, and he hasn't shown one ounce of gratitude. He orders me around like I'm one of the servants, and he argues with me over every little thing."
"He ain't feeling well, Miss Helen—"
"So he wants everyone else to feel just as miserable. He's unfailingly grouchy, demanding, and ungrateful. Every single day he reminds me that he's leaving his fortune to me. I got so fed up yesterday that I told him I planned to give away every last cent of it and live a simple life. I just might do it, too."
"Ain't so simple living a simple life," Minnie said. "Being poor is hard work. Being a poor colored person is even harder. I don't recommend you try it, Miss Helen."
"I almost did it once, you know, when I was younger. I nearly gave all of this up for love."
"And I'll bet you're glad that you didn't. Nothing good happens when you think with your heart instead of your head, let me tell you."
"Maybe you're right.... But it's too late now. I'll never know." And Helen would have to live with what might have been for the rest of her life.
Minnie chopped the potatoes into quarters and spread them in the roasting pan with the meat and carrots and onions. "This here will be done cooking at twelve-thirty," she said as she slid the pan into the oven. "But you and me ain't done having this conversation about believing in God, Miss Helen." She untied her apron and hung it on the kitchen door, then shoved her arms into her coat sleeves. "My granddaughter's gonna be here any minute to take me to church. And you better know I'll be praying for you today."
"Don't waste your prayers on me, Minnie. The doctors say that my parents haven't much time left. Pray for them instead."
"Gonna pray for all of you," she said. She closed the back door behind her.
Helen hid in the servants' den all morning, but her father didn't come downstairs. At noon she finally went upstairs to get dressed, then took Minnie's roast beef out of the oven and carried a tray of food to her father. She walked into his room and out of it again before he had a chance to say a word to her. She picked at her own plate of food for a while, sitting alone in the kitchen, wishing Minnie was there to keep her company. Then Helen cut pieces of meat and potatoes and carrots into tiny pieces and took another tray into her mother's bedroom.
"Do you want me to help you with this?" Helen asked.
Her mother cupped her hand to her ear. "Pardon me?"
"Do you need help eating?"
"No, I can do it. And you don't have to shout."
Helen sat in the chair beside her mother's bed, drumming her fingers on the armrest. The long afternoon stretched endlessly before her. "Would you like me to read to you?" she finally asked.
"What did you say?"
"Never mind." Helen would have to shout to be heard and would end up hoarse. She longed to do something, to take charge, but she was helpless, trapped in a silent, loveless house, waiting for everyone to die.
When she could no longer stand the aching silence, Helen carried the radio from the sitting room into her mother's bedroom and tuned it to a channel that played classical music. Halfway through the first movement of Beethoven's Third Symphony, the music halted abruptly.
"We interrupt this program to bring you a special bulletin." The announcer's grave voice made Helen's heart speed up. "A spokesman at the White House has just confirmed that shortly before eight o'clock this morning, Hawaiian time, the nation of Japan launched a surprise air attack on U.S. military installations on the island of Oahu. All of the principal American military bases in the Hawaiian Islands were struck, including the United States' Pacific Fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor."
"What did he say?" Helen's mother asked.
"Nothing." Helen quickly turned off the radio. "There's something wrong with the transmission. Technical difficulties."
Helen's mother had mere months to live. Why burden her last days with news like this, especially after all of the other losses she'd suffered in her lifetime? Helen could hardly comprehend the news herself. If it was true, then America was about to become involved in another war. The carnage and destruction of the Great War would be repeated, like a returning nightmare. The first war had shifted Helen's life from its foundations. A second war just might complete the destruction.
"Maybe you should take a little nap," she told her mother. Helen helped her get settled beneath the mountain of blankets, then carried the radio into the den and turned it on again.
"... Several battleships and destroyers are in flames, and the injured are pouring into emergency facilities. There are reports of sailors trapped in their berths in the sinking ships, still asleep when the first wave of enemy aircraft struck without warning. The unofficial death toll stands at more than nine hundred and is expected to rise."
Helen listened in stunned silence for more than half an hour before finally turning off the radio for good. How could a loving God allow such a disaster to happen? How could He stand by and watch as helpless men died in their bunks? If He wasn't able to stop something this evil from happening, then He wasn't very powerful. And if God could have stopped the carnage but had chosen not to, then Helen didn't see why she was expected to trust Him.
"Where were you when all this was going on?" she asked aloud. But there was no God to hear her question, much less answer it.
Rosa Bonelli awoke with a humdinger of a hangover. The sun had climbed above the apartment building across the street, and as the light shoved its way into her room, it sent a bolt of pain straight through her head. She squinted at the alarm clock beside her bed. Ten-thirty in the morning. What day was it? Sunday? Oh, for crying out loud! Rosa had to be at work in an hour, and her head felt like it was about to crack open like an egg.
She crawled out of bed, pulled on a bathrobe over her underclothes, and lurched out to the kitchen, hoping to find some tomato juice. The spindly kitchen table had enough liquor bottles on it to start a small nightclub, but there was nothing in the refrigerator except a sour smell. Rosa cursed and closed the door, leaning against it for support.
She wondered where Mona, her worthless excuse for a mother, was. Then she remembered that Mona was working the breakfast shift for a friend today. Rosa ransacked the cupboards for a bag of coffee and the percolator, careful not to bang the cupboard doors too hard and make her headache worse. The percolator had just started to burble when Mona's latest deadbeat boyfriend, Bob Something-Or-Other, appeared in the kitchen doorway in his boxers and undershirt.
"Hey, what's all the racket out here?" He grinned, showing his misshapen teeth. "You killing roaches or something?"
"Nope, just making coffee." Rosa quickly turned away, tying her bathrobe closed. She didn't like the way Bob always looked her over like he was undressing her with his eyes. She had sized him up as a creep the day he'd moved in, and she'd felt uneasy around him ever since—especially when Mona wasn't home. Rosa had known from day one that he'd never be a father to her. She had waited in vain all of her twenty-two years for one of Mona's many boyfriends to step up and be a father to her. It hadn't happened yet.
"You want a cup of this when it's finished?" she asked.
"Yeah, sure." Bob didn't move from the doorway. "Dang, but you sure are a pretty little thing."
She wanted to smack him with a frying pan, but Mona didn't own one. Rosa knew she needed to get dressed and out of there before big-eyed Bob started getting ideas. She quickly found two mugs in the cluttered sink and rinsed them out.
"I gotta get ready for work while this finishes brewing," she told him. "Excuse me." She tried to slip out of the kitchen, but Bob blocked her path.
"Whoa, whoa. What's your hurry, Rosie?"
"It's Rosa, not Rosie. And I gotta be at work in less than an hour."
"Seems like you're always running off somewhere. Can't we sit down and visit a little bit? Make friends?"
"Maybe another day." She had half a mind to tell him that they could be friends when pigs learned to fly, but she didn't want to make him mad with Mona gone. She tried to squeeze past him again, but he grabbed her arm.
"I know you like a good time, Rosie. I seen you running around the clubs every night. You and me could have a lot of fun together now that Mona's at work."
"I said, some other time!"
Bob was a big guy and, judging by the grip he had on her arm, very strong. Rosa's heart began to pound harder than her head—and it took a lot to make Rosa Bonelli afraid. She tried to think what to do, but her hung-over brain wasn't working yet. Bob mistook her hesitation for interest and pulled her close.
"Come here, babe...."
"No! Let go of me, you big jerk!" She lifted her knee as hard as she could, and Bob grunted in pain, doubling over. As soon as she felt Bob's grip loosen, Rosa twisted free and ran to her bedroom, slamming the door and locking it. Thank God it had a lock! She heard Bob lumbering down the hallway, right behind her. He pounded on the door as if trying to smash it down.
"Let me in, you little tease! You can't prance around in your underwear every morning and then tell me you ain't interested! Open the door!"
Rosa yelled back, telling him exactly where he could go as she scrambled into her waitress uniform and shoes. Any minute now either the lock or the door was going to break, and the big goon would be inside. The only other way out was through her bedroom window and down the fire escape. She tugged the window open and looked down. Dirty city snow blanketed New York, and judging by the gust of cold air that slapped her in the face, the temperature was below freezing. She had no way to retrieve her coat and gloves from the front closet.
Bob began to curse as he pounded on the door. "Open up or I'll kick the blasted door in!"
Rosa grabbed a sweater and climbed over the windowsill, making her way down the wobbling fire escape, doing her best to ignore the five-story drop. Particles of rust flaked off on her hands as she gripped the railing. She hoped the rickety old steps would hold her weight.
Suddenly they ended, and she had to drop the last six feet to the ground. Her knees were shaking so hard they gave out, and she collapsed onto the sidewalk in a heap. People stared at her as if she'd just escaped from the loony bin. She could imagine what she looked like with half-buttoned clothes and uncombed hair and no coat. She didn't care. Rosa scrambled to her feet again, worried that Bob might chase after her. She took off at a run, jogging the four blocks to the restaurant where Mona worked.
"If you're looking for a handout, you're out of luck," Mona said when she saw Rosa. "I'm not giving you any more money."
"I'm not here for money," Rosa said through chattering teeth. "I just had a narrow escape from your darling Bob. He tried to grab me and—"
"Were you flirting with him? I know how you like to flirt, Rosa. I told you you'd get yourself in trouble someday."
"I wasn't flirting! I was trying to make a pot of coffee, and he came after me!"
"I don't believe you. Bob isn't like that."
"Hey! Did you notice that I don't even have a coat on? I had to climb down the blasted fire escape to avoid being raped!"
"I don't have time for all your carrying-on, Rosa. I got customers waiting. What do you want from me?"
"What do I want? For starters, I could have used a father for the past twenty-two years. Someone to watch out for me and protect me from creeps like Bob. But I suppose that's too much to ask."
Rosa whirled away before Mona could reply and ran for the door, grabbing a customer's coat off the rack on her way out. It was a long walk to the diner where she worked, and she had plenty of time to get her tears under control before she arrived. She would go back to the apartment for her clothes and things when she was sure that Bob wasn't home, but she made up her mind to move out for good. She couldn't live there anymore.
"Hey, do you know anyone who's looking for a roommate?" she asked her friend Lorraine when she finally arrived at work. Business was slow, too early for the servicemen from the nearby navy base to arrive, so Rosa and Lorraine had time to talk.
"I can squeeze you in my place somewhere," Lorraine said after she'd heard Rosa's story. She handed her a handkerchief to dry her eyes. "My place is small, but we can figure something out. You can't live with a jerk like Bob, that's for sure."
Lorraine loaned Rosa some makeup and a hairbrush. It took a long time for her hands to stop shaking so she could pour coffee. She eyed the door nervously all day, worried that Bob would show up, looking for revenge. She thought her shift would never end.
Halfway through the afternoon, the guy from the pretzel stand on the corner burst into the diner, shouting loud enough for the whole world to hear. "Hey, did you hear the news? They just interrupted the Giants game—the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor this morning! They tried to sink the whole U.S. fleet!"
"Aw, you're crazy," a customer at the counter said. "Japanese planes can't fly that far. They'd run out of fuel."
"Well, they sure as shootin' did! Turn on a radio and see for yourself."
Rosa brought the check to a group of sailors in a booth, pausing to flirt with them so they'd leave her a big tip. Then she hurried to the pass-though window to listen as the cook turned on the radio in the kitchen. Static hissed like frying hamburgers, then the news announcer's voice finally tuned in:
"... in Pearl Harbor where the United States was attacked early this morning. The battleship Arizona, the West Virginia, and as many as nineteen other ships in the U.S. Pacific Fleet have been damaged or sunk. The Japanese also destroyed more than one hundred eighty American fighter planes parked on the tarmac. The death toll is close to one thousand and rising...."
"Holy smokes!" the cook breathed. "We're in this war for sure now. I may as well head on down and enlist."
Rosa leaned against the counter, her strength draining from her legs for the second time that day. But Bob's clumsy attack was nothing compared to this one.
"I don't want to believe it's true," Lorraine said. She and Rosa clung to each other, listening to the grim news.
"... The attack on Pearl Harbor has effectively crippled the American fleet, leaving the United States vulnerable to further attacks. President Roosevelt is expected to ask Congress for a declaration of war—" The cook shut off the radio in disgust.
"I'm a mess," Lorraine said, wiping her tear-streaked mascara on her apron. "Come on, let's take a break." She pulled Rosa into the ladies' room.
Rosa leaned against the tiled wall, staring at her hollow-eyed reflection in the dingy mirror. "You know what, Lorraine? I'm sick and tired of not knowing which way things are gonna go when I wake up every morning. My life is like riding the Scrambler at Coney Island: All I can do is hang on tight while it spins me in circles and shifts direction every other second."
"The Scrambler's great if you got a cute guy to hang on to."
"Yeah, but at the moment, I got no one. I'm sick and tired of all the bumps and turns, tired of working dead-end jobs and fighting off creeps like Bob. I can't count on anyone or anything to be there tomorrow. Sure, some of the sailors I dated swore up and down that they loved me, but they didn't stick around any longer than my mother's worthless boyfriends do. And now this—a sneak attack, another war. Everything's gonna change."
Lorraine blotted her lipstick with a paper towel. "Maybe we should join the WACs or something."
"Nah, they make you keep your room clean and get up real early in the morning." Rosa poked at her hair, tucking some loose strands beneath her hairnet. "I know life isn't a fairy tale with a happy ending, but I'm really not asking for much in life—just a nice guy who loves me."
"Yeah, and maybe a cottage in the woods, like Snow White."
"With my luck, I'm gonna wind up with the seven dwarves instead of the prince."
"Hey, Rosa, your customer needs more coffee," one of the other waitresses told her as she and Lorraine emerged from the bathroom.
"So what else is new?" Rosa sighed and picked up the coffeepot. Even when life threw curve balls, some things never changed. If only the carnival ride would end so she could go home with her handsome prince.
Jean Erickson sat in the Majestic Theater, holding her boyfriend's hand, but her thoughts kept straying from the Sunday matinee movie to the essay that she needed to write for tomorrow's history class. She silently composed her arguments as the film Sergeant York played across the screen.
She'd told Russ that she couldn't go to the movies after he'd driven out to her family's farm to invite her. "I still have homework to finish, and then I have to study for a chemistry test, and—"
"Why? So you can get an A instead of a B?" Russ asked. "Would the world come to an end if you only got a B?"
"I need straight A's so I can get a college scholarship for next fall. My parents don't have any money to pay for college and—"
"Come on, Jean. It's only a two-hour movie. You've got all night to study." Russ had turned to Jean's twin brother, John, seated across the kitchen table from her. "Help me talk her into it, buddy. You should come, too. We'll stop by Sue's house and make it a foursome."
"Great idea." John had closed his history book with a slap and stood up. "Let's go, sis. We can finish studying later." Jean might have been able to refuse Russ, but her twin could talk her into anything. That's how she'd ended up in the Majestic Theater sharing a box of Jujubes with Russ, worrying about her essay.
All of a sudden the movie screen flickered, then went dark. The soundtrack ground to a halt. The audience groaned. Someone in the balcony booed as the house lights blinked on. The theater manager blew into the microphone several times and asked, "Is this thing on?" He blew again. "Testing ... testing ... Can you hear me?" More people booed.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the manager finally said, "we apologize for interrupting the show, but we've just received an important news bulletin. Early this morning, the Japanese launched an air attack on the U.S. fleet in Pearl Harbor."
Jean caught her breath. The theater grew deathly still.
"Early news reports say that more than three hundred Japanese aircraft were involved, including dive-bombers, fighter planes, and high-level bombers. Eight U.S. battleships have reportedly been damaged or sunk, along with three destroyers. As many as two hundred U.S. aircraft have been damaged or destroyed on the ground. Casualties are estimated at hundreds of lives."
Jean gasped. "Russ, my brother Danny is stationed in Pearl Harbor!"
"I thought he was at Great Lakes."
"No, he finished there. He came home on furlough last month, then they shipped him to Pearl Harbor." She hadn't feared at all for Danny's safety until today. America wasn't involved in the war. She leaned forward to face her brother John at the same moment that he leaned toward her. "Is this for real?" she asked him.
"I don't know. We'd better go home and see."
All over the theater, people were standing and putting on their coats to leave. Jean hoped she was dreaming as she grabbed her jacket and hurried outside to Russ's truck. Her legs felt weak and shaky.
"Maybe this is another hoax," she said as she climbed into the seat, "like that radio broadcast a few years ago, remember?"
"You mean 'War of the Worlds'?" John asked. "That caused an awful lot of panic. I don't think they'd dare pull another stunt like that."
They took John's girlfriend home first, then Russ drove his father's pickup truck at breakneck speed down the country roads to Jean's farm. The three of them bounced on the worn springs like popcorn in a hot pan. Powdery snow blew across the barren fields and onto the dirt road as they sped past.
"We just got a letter and photo from Danny," she said, picturing him with his white sailor hat tipped jauntily on his head. "He went on and on about how beautiful the islands were, how balmy the weather was."
"I don't understand how Japanese airplanes could get close enough to attack Hawaii without being spotted," John said as they drove. "Why wasn't there any warning?" No one knew the answer.
Please, God. Don't let anything happen to Danny, Jean prayed.
She ran inside the farmhouse as soon as they reached home, not even bothering to remove her boots. "Ma!" she shouted, "Did you hear the news? The Japanese attacked—"
"Shh!" Her siblings hushed her from the living room. Jean found everyone gathered around the radio, listening intently. She sank down on the arm of the sofa beside her mother.
"... More than three hundred Japanese aircraft participated in a coordinated attack against American military installations on the island of Oahu, including Wheeler Field, Hickham Field, and Pearl Harbor. All military personnel and civilian defense workers—excluding women—have been ordered to report for duty immediately. Women and other civilians have been ordered to seek shelter and stay inside until further notice."
The family listened in silence until the announcer began to repeat himself, then all of Jean's sisters and brothers began talking at once.
"Did they say anything about Dan's ship, the California?" Jean asked her mother.
"They mentioned the Shaw and the West Virginia," her younger brother Howie said.
"They can't get a clear view of the other ships," her father added. "There's too much smoke."
Jean struggled to control her tears. "I hope Danny's all right."
Ma took her hand, squeezing it to comfort her. "God is in control, Jeannie. Don't ever forget that. The leaders and nations of this world aren't running things, God is."
"He'll let us know he's safe as soon as he can. There's no sense worrying about something until it happens. I leave my worrying to God."
Jean wished she had even half a measure of her mother's faith. "I don't know how you can sit here so calmly after what just happened, and—"
"I'm going down tomorrow to sign up for the air force," John interrupted.
"You can't do that! We're going to college together next fall, remember?"
"College isn't going to happen, Jeannie. If this news bulletin is true and America really has been attacked, then our lives are about to be turned upside down. I may as well enlist before I get drafted."
"Me too," Howie said. "I'll go with you."
"You'll both have plenty of time to enlist after you've finished high school," Ma said calmly. "You can't enlist until you're eighteen, Howie. And they won't allow either one of you into flight school without a high school diploma."
"You don't have to fight at all, you know," Russell said. He had followed Jean into the house without her realizing it. "We can all get draft exemptions because we're farmers." Everyone stared at him as if he'd spoken in Japanese. "It's true. I already read up on it. We're exempt if we stay home and run the family farm."
"But I want to fight for my country," John said.
"Me too," Howie echoed.
"I'd gladly enlist if I were a guy," Jean said. It wasn't the first time she'd felt the frustration of being born female.
"You could join the Women's Army Corps," John told her.
"And be a glorified secretary? No thanks! They don't let women do anything in the army except wear a uniform and type letters."
"Of course they don't," Russ said. "You don't really think women belong in combat, do you?"
Any other time Jean would have argued with him, but not today. She was much too worried about Danny to launch into a debate on equality for women. "Well, I'm going to do something useful for the war effort," she said aloud. "I don't know what, but I'm going to do my part."
"The Japanese don't stand a chance with Jeannie on our side," John said. She punched his arm.
"I'd better head home," Russ said, turning toward the door. "I don't know if my folks have heard the news yet." Jean walked out to the kitchen with him. Her schoolbooks still lay open where she'd left them on the table, but the Japanese had just wreaked havoc on all of her plans.
"See you tomorrow, Jean."
She kissed Russ good-bye and tried to return to her essay, but she couldn't stop thinking about her brother Danny and the devastation at Pearl Harbor. And if her nation did go to war, and if Johnny did enlist, would she ever get to college? Jean wished she knew the answer.