The sunlight glare on the mirror washed out James Eliot's nineteen-year-old face making his eyes pale and translucent. On the wall there was a shadow of the stuffed bear he'd had since he was a child that was sitting on the window sill. The bear was dressed like an aviator and his name was Oscar. James pulled the blind down some and went back to combing his blonde hair and pushing it out of his face. No matter how hard he tried the strands would always break loose and hang like vines before his eyes. Through the cracked window of his bedroom, in the attic of his Aunt Joyce's top-floor tenement apartment in Bay Ridge, he could hear the planes being maneuvered out of their hangars in Fort Hamilton. The birds of war had no mission to fly tonight. The last Saturday of every month some of the officers would host a dance in Fort Hamilton for the young adults of Brooklyn. In truth, the Women's Institute did most of the organizing. The military officers just let out a hangar and kept a watchful eye for any miscreant behavior but primarily they were just salesmen for military service looking for the next generation of soldiers among the woebegotten kids of Brooklyn.
James's eyes followed his hands. His hands were covered in cuts. They always were. He had a job in Kavinsky's Delicatessen sweeping floors and unloading stock and cleaning tables and everything else that no-one else would do. There were holes in the floorboards of the storeroom and it used to be that rats would climb up through there, supposing they came from the sewers or some place like that. At first he tried laying plywood over the holes but the rats gnawed through it every time. He convinced the boss-man, Moshe Kavinsky, to buy some traps and he set those out at the edge of the plywood. He already knew the plywood didn't hold out long but there was no use in making it easy for the rats. And sure the traps worked and a dozen rodents perished on the shores of the beech plywood but the storeroom was overwhelmed and a new wave of rats sprung from the hole and clambered over their dead comrades to deplete and sabotage the storeroom of the delicatessen. James took the issue to his grandfather who told him to load the holes full of coarse steel wool. He didn't even need to persuade Moshe, to buy steel wool like he had done for the traps since there was an abundance of it in the cleaning supplies.
The rats gnawed at the steel wool trying to make it to the bounty and had their mouths cut by a thousand razor-blades. Most ran off wounded and afraid after the first attempt but some hardy among them with a little more Brooklyn heart persevered into the dark agony of the steel. They always died, entangled and bleeding from their mouths, from exhaustion and having their insides torn to ribbons by the shards of steel they had swallowed. It was then on James to collect the dead and bayonet the wounded. He had no gloves thick enough to protect himself from the rat's barbed wire as he reached down into the hole and pulled out tufts of the steel wool in which the dead rats were caught. It wasn't unseen for a rat to survive the night in the hole but more often than not they would succumb to their wounds in being pulled from the sharp, mangled steel and those who did survive wouldn’t make it and had to put out of their misery.
The band began to warm up in the hangar. The trumpeter's tune sang through the backyards and coaxed James back from his memory about the rats. His grandfather had told him it was a humane way to deal with them - better than the boot, better than setting a dog on them or gassing them. At least the steel wool gave them a choice. A choice to turn and scurry or push on to the frontier and fight. Rats, like men, deserve that much. The opportunity to face adversity with courage and show spirit under pressure if it is for something necessary and good. There is no death more terrible than the death predetermined. James accepted the nuisance of his hair was unchangeable and began dressing in his gray pants. The ones that didn't have a faint stain on the rear from an unclean movie theater seat. He wore a white shirt, too, as white as was possible when the building you lived in rained soot every time a door was shut too heartily. The trumpet player bashed out a few more melodies and James fixed his blue tie and peered out of the window. People were starting to head over to the military base in the distance. The drummer was tuning up and the birds rose from all around when he made the snare sound like a great rattlesnake. James squeezed into the dress shoes that had belonged to his father. They were a tad small for him but he didn't mind at all. He liked the way they looked and it was sentimental, he supposed, to walk in his father's shoes. Perhaps tonight he would finally dance in them too. He was waiting for the right partner.
His father and mother met on the beach of Coney Island, twenty-one years ago, in 1935. They were both kids, still, in their late teens like James was now. His father, Robert, was in the midst of his national service duty, stationed in Fort Hamilton. It was the hottest day of the year and his father had a recreational afternoon. He was serving alongside a kid named Harry who he had bonded with over no more than the fact they were both from Red Hook and each agreed that you hardly ever meet anyone from the old neighborhood when you leave it. The two friends spent the day on the boardwalk, standing tall and proud in their uniforms, as they drank sodas and Harry smoked cigarettes. They wandered most of the day playing childhood games like my car in which they each picked out, at a distance, their favorite car from a lot and then inspected the registration plates and the one with the largest number was the winning vehicle. They played to three and then the best of seven and then to ten and so forth until they were bored and running out of cars to choose. Harry suggested playing a variation called my girl in which they would pick their best girl and find out what number her address was. It wasn't really about the game. The boys just wanted to find some dates to take to the attractions and save them from wandering around in the hot, bright parking lot all day to pass the time. They agreed it would be best to find a couple of girls together rather than each looking for individual partners. It took some time before they found two girls who they both liked. Often it was the case that one girl who they both thought was more beautiful than the other and they couldn't decide who should pair up with her. Other times the girls were each too beautiful to approach or showed no interest at their first clumsy attempts at initiating courtship. The boys took a walk on the crowded beach. It was exposed and the sun felt like the blast of a bomb on their backs. Robert's throat was drier than the sand beneath his feet. He slowed up and was about to ask Harry if he wanted to head back when a girl spoke to him, 'Do you want to split this apple, soldier?' The boys hadn't paid any mind to the young woman and her friend sitting beneath a parasol eating a small lunch. The woman with the apple was James's mother, Mary, and her companion was her cousin, though James now knew her as Aunt Joyce.
Robert paired off with Mary and Harry with Joyce, going their separate ways for the day. Both girls lived in nearby Sheepshead Bay. Joyce lived with her parents on 17th Street and Mary was renting a room on 13th Street which had a curfew of 11pm. That didn't bother Robert none since the curfew for the barracks was at nine. Harry leaned over to Robert and muttered, "Seventeen is higher than thirteen. My girl wins.' Harry and Joyce took a walk but ended up fooling around beneath the boardwalk. They weren’t particularly fond of one another when it was all over. Robert wanted to pay back the girl who split her apple with him so he spent a dollar trying to win her a seventy-nine cent prize by shooting two-inch moving targets with a pellet rifle. He would've had better luck pitching a ball at tin cans but that game was easier so the prizes weren’t as meaningful. That's true of life and baseball and war. The twenty-one cents he would've saved just buying the stuffed toy for Mary was worthless compared to the squeal of joy she gave when he shot the little tin men in a row and the way she looked up in admiration at him when he handed her the prize. She threw her arms around him and hugged her new possession. It was a small stuffed bear wearing a leather pilot's helmet and aviator jacket and with a pair of goggles fastened to his face, like an airman. It was the second-best prize on the shelf next to the Buck Rogers Ray Gun.
On the Wonder Wheel the coolness of the evening was starting to settle. The world was calm and far away atop the wheel where the bear was Christened Oscar. They could hear laughter and giddy screams echoing from the other carriages on the ride, carried in the breeze, but otherwise it was tranquil. Robert knew curfew was approaching. He got to supposing what would happen if he made it back late. Some of the boys did it all the time. There was a ditch at the fence-line that could be crawled under. Mary asked him if he was planning to make his way back. 'Supposing I don't want to,' he said, 'Supposing I want to go dancing instead.'
Mary left her bag with the cloakroom attendant of the promenade dance-hall but insisted on bringing Oscar in. Robert had never had the right partner and so he had never danced. Oscar sat at their table while Mary showed Robert where to put his feet, how to hold her hand, how to touch her waist. During a slow-dance she laid her hands on his back and her ear against his chest and listened to him breathing.
Over her head Robert saw Joyce through the window waving for his attention. Harry had his back on the glass and above his head flew plumes of blue cigarette smoke. Each of them looked a little scuffed around the edges. It was time for Mary to go home. It was time for all of them to go home. Each of the men walked his girl home and agreed to meet at the fence of the barracks where the ditch was. At Mary's door she told him they could see each other some more if he liked the idea. Robert said he liked it just fine and asked is she meant steady. She laughed and touched his cheek with Oscar's face, making a kissing noise with her own lips. They touched hands without saying anything and he felt bold enough to let his thumb explore the pale, soft skin of the back of her small hand. His fingertips felt rough to her but she didn't mind. 'Must be nice to be so close to the beach,’ Robert said. 'It has been, but I'm going to a new place up in Bensonhurst next month,' she told him, 'When you next put down your rifle, you should pick up a pen and write me, soldier.' She wrote him a note of the new address. It was Bay Parkway. Robert asked, 'Didn't that used to be called 22nd Avenue?' Mary gave his hand a squeeze and smiled, 'Sure it did.' She swept the loose strands of blonde hair from his forehead. They let go of one another’s hand and said farewell. As he began that march back to Fort Hamilton, his spirits felt invigorated and his legs felt lighter and didn't hurt at all. His hand felt weak and tingled where she had squeezed it. When she had waved to him and shut the front door he thought, 'Twenty-two beats seventeen. My girl wins.'
By 1956, as their nineteen-year-old son went dancing at Fort Hamilton in his father's shoes, Robert and Mary Eliot were both dead. Robert had died in the European theater of battle in 1943 when his son was six-years-old. His unit was mobilized from the very base James was going to tonight. The following year Mary passed away from a combination of influenza and pneumonia. James's Aunt Joyce had always told him that she died of a broken heart because she couldn't go dancing with her best guy any more. It happened to so many. Men died and with them a piece of their beloved died. Sometimes the shard that made them want to keep on living. The piece that made them want to love. His grandfather told him that his dad died for something necessary and good and that, in death, he showed some Brooklyn heart and his demise affirmed courage before adversity and showed spirit under pressure in the face of something evil. Aunt Joyce said that there was no grace in war and boys from Brooklyn are never meant to make it out unscathed. James had seen pictures from that war of dead men trapped in barbed wire, frozen and drenched in the mud, bleeding from their mouths and chests.
James lifted the blind from his window and gazed down at the bright streets. They were busy with the groups of young men and women, dressed as finely as a Brooklyn kid can be, walking toward Fort Hamilton. He felt like a sniper in a nest. A young soldier in his uniform was waiting outside a tenement across the street. He held his cap in his hand as a young lady descended the stoop. He took her hand in his and held it suspended for a moment. They laughed at something he said and headed off down the road. James made to leave too, stopping in to say goodnight to his aunt. He kissed her on the cheek and told her he loved her. 'I love you too, sweetheart,' she said, 'You look just like your dad.'
At the dance the boys all stood on one side of the hangar and the girls all stood on the other side with a vast, concrete no man's land separating them. The band leader, a famous singer named Louis Prima, tried to warm everyone up with a romantic story about a young couple meeting in Italy before striking up the first composition. No-one wanted to be the first to cross the empty space and face public rejection. A young man leaned over to James and said, 'Why do we do this? Why are we so scared?' The young man was dark-skinned, immaculately dressed in a brown suit and had his hair set sharp and straight. He continued, 'Think of all the men who were sent to war from this place and we can't even ask a dame to dance.' James smiled and introduced himself to the young man. He was Samuel. They shook hands. 'Where are you from, James?' asked Samuel. 'I live just over in Bay Ridge, with my aunt, but when my parents were around we lived in Red Hook,' James told him. 'No kidding. I'm from Red Hook,' Samuel exclaimed. James said, 'I never meet anyone from the old neighborhood.' 'Me neither once I leave,' said Samuel. By the time the band finished the song there were a few soldiers dancing with their girls in front of the stage and some of the girls had paired up together and were dancing close to the wall. No-one had crossed the hangar yet. They all applauded Prima and his band and he looked out at the boys with a beaming smile. 'Be brave, fellas,' he said and started into the next song.
Kavinsky's Delicatessen was shut for the night but something was rustling in the storeroom. A rat crawled up from the sewer, supposing that's where they come from, and began gnawing at the steel wool. His mouth bled as he clawed and fought but he chose to show some Brooklyn heart and faced adversity with courage and showed spirit under pressure and was graceful in victory when he made it through the war.
In the hangar Louis Prima introduced his third song by announcing it would be a slow one. James and Samuel had picked their best girls and were now subtly elbowing one another in the back to take the first step. James felt his heart beating in his mouth as he looked at the girl and envisioned walking over to her. She was drinking a ginger ale and lime cordial and wore a white dress and flat shoes. He hair was set in a style he had seen in some of Aunt Joyce's magazines but didn't know the name of. Her eyes flashed green as she caught him looking at her. She chewed her straw and smiled at him. The first note of the song landed like a bomb on his chest and he realized he was putting one of his father's shoe in front of the other. She waved
Picture credit: https://pixabay.com/en/coney-island-new-york-nyc-beach-1457778/