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Chesterfield Gray

By Stace Johnson All Rights Reserved ©

Other

Chesterfield Gray

The glow of her cigarette tip, limned by swirling smoke, brightened to orange as she took a hungry drag.  The tip faded to a dull red as she held the smoke, then almost disappeared as she exhaled a thin stream of Chesterfield gray.  She closed her eyes and bent her head back, holding the cigarette high between two fingertips, her crimson nails matching the lipstick stain on the unfiltered butt.  Her dark brown curls tumbled from beneath a red, wide-brimmed hat and blended with the walnut paneling before splashing onto her bare shoulders.  She opened her eyes, lowered her head and focused on a sailor across the room.  He sat alone against the wall, his hand wrapped around a sweating highball.  The sailor kept his head down, ignoring her gaze, while a tinny radio played Benny Goodman in the background.

A few tables away, two more sailors stood and adjusted their white hats to appropriately jaunty angles.  One of them gestured to the lone sailor.  “Hey Tony, you comin’?  We need to get back to the base by 1800.”  The sailor tilted his chair back and looked at them, his head lolling to the side.

“I’ll be there," he said, waving.  "Don’t worry about me, boys, I’m so short I wouldn’t be worth the MP’s time.”

“Yeah, Tony, you’re so short you have to knock on the door ‘cause you can’t reach the knob,” said the other sailor, grinning.  Tony looked away and pretended to scratch a sideburn with his middle finger.  The two sailors swaggered to the bar, paid their tab, and left Tony alone with the barkeep and the woman in red.

Tony watched them walk out the door and turned his gaze to the proprietor, Jimmy, polishing glasses behind the bar.  I bet he does a tidy little business here, Tony thought.  He scanned past the Uncle Sam poster on the wall to look through a veil of smoke at the woman in red.  I bet she does good business here, too.

He knew what would happen next; when her cigarette was finished, she would pull out another, glide over to his table and ask for a light.  She would expect him to hold a lighter for her, and she would sit down next to him, crossing her legs and showing a little knee.

It was the same routine, time after time, and it worked on most sailors.  But then, most sailors wanted that kind of attention.

Tony dropped his gaze to his glass as she stubbed out her cigarette halfway through, leaving the butt resting against the side of the ashtray.  She stood and walked through the gray swirl toward him, pulling another cigarette out of her case.  Tony watched out of the corner of his eye as Jimmy set two glasses on the bar, a highball and a stem.  Well, that confirms my theory about how much business she does here, Tony thought, smirking.

The woman stopped by his table and stood for a moment.  Tony studied the ice in his highball.  She snapped her cigarette case closed and cleared her throat.

“If I wanted a tramp, I’d go find one.  Scram,” Tony said.  He continued to stare into the glass.  She only missed one beat.

“Is that any way to talk to a lady?” she asked.

“Nope.”  Tony looked up at her.

She arched her eyebrows and turned her head to the side.  “I see,” she said.  “How about a light, then?”

“Sorry, I gave up smoking in the hospital.  No lighter.”

She leaned over the table, the bodice of her strapless dress relaxing as she put her hand on his shoulder for support.  “Fine, then.  I’ll get my own light.”  She retrieved a book of matches from his unused ashtray, straightened up, and proceeded to light her Chesterfield.

“Look, honey, I said get lost.  I don’t want company, and I don’t need your smoke in my face.”  He waved his hand and looked at her through the swirling gray.

The woman’s eyes locked onto his.  “My name’s Marla, not ‘honey,’” she said, blowing smoke from the side of her mouth.

“Gotcha.  Look, Marla, why don’t you go back over to your table and hit on the next guy.  I’m not buying.”

She stared down into his eyes, and he held his ground.  They are pretty brown eyes, he thought.  But I still ain’t buying.  Her gaze lingered a little longer than he expected, but he didn’t break the eye contact.

“How about a deal?” she said.  “I think you need the company, so I’m going to stay.  But I’ll put the cigarette out.”  Marla twisted the tip of the Chesterfield against the side of the ashtray, sculpting it into a cone so she could light it again later.  “And you won’t have to buy anything except a drink.  For me.”  She sat down across from him and put her chin on the back of her hand.

Tony rolled his eyes and looked at Jimmy behind the bar.  Jimmy shrugged in answer.  Tony sighed, then held up two fingers.  Jimmy nodded, and began to fill the glasses he had set out earlier.  Tony looked at his fingers, in the V-for-Victory position.  He shook his head, snorted, and downed the rest of his highball, his lips curling back as he swallowed.

“What’s funny?” Marla asked, her eyes narrowing.

“Nothing.  Nothing’s funny,” Tony said.

“You laughed like you thought something was funny.”

“No, I snorted, because I thought something was ironic.”

“Oh, I beg your pardon.  Let me rephrase that.  What’s ‘ironic?’”

Tony held his hand up in a Victory symbol again.  “This is ironic.  V for Victory.  Churchill started it a few years ago, before Pearl Harbor, remember?”

“What’s ironic about it?  Seems to me that we’re on our way to victory,” she said.  “It’s pretty clear that Japan won’t be doing anything for a while after those two bombs we dropped on them earlier this month.”  Jimmy walked from behind the bar, carrying their drinks.

“Yeah, but is that victory?  Sure, now we’ve shown the Japs that the Potsdam Declaration was not just words, and they’ll probably surrender.  But is it worth the cost?  A hundred and fifty thousand innocent men, women and children dead?”  He looked up as Jimmy arrived at the table.

Jimmy set the fresh drinks down, another bourbon for the sailor and a glass of red wine for Marla.  “Son, a lot more than a hundred and fifty thousand would die during an extended campaign in the Pacific or an invasion of Japan.  And a lot of them would be Americans.”  He scowled, then walked back to the bar, taking the empty glasses with him.

Marla watched the sailor, her eyes narrowed.  “You don’t agree, do you?”

Tony looked at her over the top of his glass as he sipped.  He lifted the glass and swirled it, watching the light shine through the brown liquor and ice.  “I don’t know what to think any more.  All I know is that there’s been enough death.  Both civilians and servicemen.”  He rubbed his left shoulder.

"What ship are you with?" Marla asked, watching him work the muscles in his shoulder.

"Technically, the Saratoga.  But I may as well be assigned to the U.S.S. Desk, right now.  We put in for repairs at the Puget Sound yard in Bremerton a few months ago.  Like the ship, I needed some repairs, and stayed in the hospital for a while up there.  Then they sent me down here to finish my tour, and the Sara shipped out.  I'm shuffling papers for the next couple of weeks, then I’m done."

Marla nodded.  "Where did you see action?"  She swirled her wine glass and took a sip.

Tony took a deep breath.  "Off Iwo Jima.  We were running with a light escort when we got ambushed.  Seven direct hits in two attack waves, three of those hits from Kamikazes.  I was moving ordnance below deck right where one of them hit.  The shrapnel messed up my shoulder pretty good."  He nodded slightly to the left.

"I was lucky, though," he continued.  "The poor bastard helping me got one whole side of his body burned.  I heard they flew him to Pearl.”  He looked up at Marla.  “I don't even know if he made it that far."

Marla shook her head.  "Kamikazes.”  She snorted.  “I don't know how people can be convinced that anything is important enough to throw their own lives away.  Stupid Japs."  She began to bring her hand to her mouth, then remembered she didn't have a cigarette and started playing with her curls instead.  Tony smiled, pulled the ashtray over, handed her the Chesterfield she had put out before, and struck a match for her.

"You know, I used to feel the same way.  After Pearl, I hated the Japanese.  Like most people, I wanted to see them wiped off the face of the Earth.  Worse than Nazis, I thought.  When the Sara got ambushed, most of the guys just hated them more.

“But when I got up off the deck, I saw something that woke me up.”  Tony reached in his pocket and brought out a small handmade book with thick pages.  The edges were scorched black, and the pages warped.  Marla opened it to find a small album, with photographs glued to each page.  Black and white images of two children and a woman – all Japanese – looked back at her.  She handed it back, no expression on her face.

“As I was lying on the deck after the crash, I felt something under my back.  It was part of the pilot’s flight jacket, and this was tucked inside a pocket.”  Tony thumbed to a page in the back and showed it to her.  “Now, look at this one.”  The picture was older than the others, and showed a pair of young boys, one Japanese and one Caucasian, playing.  He handed the book to Marla again.

Tony sipped his bourbon while she looked at the picture.  “My father was a government diplomat.  We traveled from city to city, country to country.  Sometimes it seems like I grew up on ships, in between continents, so it seemed natural for me to join the Navy.  Like most government brats, I never had many friends.  But I remember a couple of names and faces.

“We lived in Japan for a while in the mid ‘30s, and I remember one boy named Sachi.  He was as close as I ever came to having a best friend.  Our fathers worked together at the embassy, and we would play in Sachi’s yard while our mothers gossiped.”  Tony tapped the little photo album in Marla’s hand.

“That picture might as well be of Sachi and me.  My father had one similar to it on his desk.  He said he kept it there to remind him what diplomacy was all about.”

Marla raised her eyes to meet his and handed the miniature album back.  “Go on,” she said.

“As soon as I saw that picture, memories of Sachi came flooding back, and everything about this damn war changed for me.  Every night, when I dream, I see Sachi’s face behind the yoke of that Zero as it dives for the ship.”  He paused for a moment and looked at Marla through the smoke curling off the tip of her cigarette.

"You know, it’s not all black and white, Us versus Them.  There is a lot of gray area.  It's silly, really, to have to say that, but we're so blind with hatred and anger that we forget it.  I forgot it until I was almost killed, by someone who may as well have been an old friend."

Tony stopped, looking at the ice in his glass again.  "Of course, that’s not a very popular position right now, I'm afraid.  Especially for an enlisted man.  I could get thrown in the brig for being a sympathizer."  He took a drink.

Marla reached over and pulled his chin up.  She looked in his eyes.  "It may not be popular, but it's honest.  And it comes from experience," she said.  "I'm not sure I agree with it, but you certainly seem to have conviction about it."  She laid her hand on his, and Tony let it rest there.

Jimmy, at the bar, leaned in close to the radio.  He called for their attention, and turned up the volume knob.  A crackly voice announced, "And now, the President of the United States."  The speaker popped a couple of times, and the familiar voice of Harry S Truman broke through.

"I have received this afternoon a message from the Japanese government in reply to the message forwarded to that government by the Secretary of State on August 11.  I deem this reply a full acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration, which specifies the unconditional surrender of Japan.  In the reply, there is no qualification.  Arrangements are now being made for the formal signing of surrender terms at the earliest possible moment."  Truman's voice crackled on, listing the details of the Japanese capitulation, while outside the bar, people shouted and car horns blared.

Jimmy sighed, poured himself a drink, and looked across the tables at Tony.  “Well, you got what you wanted, son.  It’s over.  It’s no good for me, I’ll tell you that.  After all the sailors make port and catch trains home, I’m going to have a hard time keeping the doors open.”  Jimmy shook his head and pointed at the woman.  “You’re going to have a tougher time of it too, Marla,” he said.

Marla looked away and stared at Uncle Sam’s face on the wall, his finger pointing at her as he proclaimed, “I Want You!”

The door flew open and a sailor burst into the bar, yelling.  “Have you heard the news?  It’s over!  We won!”

Jimmy smiled back at the sailor and raised his glass.  “Yeah, we heard.  You want a drink to celebrate?  It’s on the house!”

“No thanks, Jimmy, I actually came in to see Marla.”  Marla broke off her staring contest with Uncle Sam and turned to face the sailor.  He walked across the room and knelt down in front of Marla, oblivious to Tony’s presence.  He took her hand.

“Marla, I want to thank you for ... well ... everything.”  He looked into her lap, blushing.  Marla held back a smirk and rubbed the back of his hand.  The sailor looked into her eyes and continued.  “But I’ve got a girl back home, and I can’t wait to see her.  She’s everything to me, you know.”  He swallowed.  “I just had to let you know that I couldn’t have made it through this war without you.”  He kissed her on the cheek, then turned and walked across the bar.  At the door, he turned and waved.

“‘Bye, Marla.”

“‘Bye, Pete,” she whispered, raising her hand a little.  Pete walked out and rejoined the growing celebration in the streets.

Tony watched a vacancy gloss over Marla’s eyes.  For a moment, she was someplace else, then the focus came back into her eyes.  She turned to Jimmy and said, “Well, I’m nobody’s fool, Jimmy.  It’s probably about time for me to make some changes anyway.”  She turned and looked at Tony.

Tony studied the table’s wood grain as Truman’s voice droned on about the proclamation of V-J Day waiting upon the formal signing of the terms of surrender.  It was really over.  He felt the war slipping off his shoulders like the sweat running off his highball.  Just the formalities left, he thought.  Now what do I do?  How do I build some meaning into this life?  He felt a squeeze from Marla's hand, and looked up into her eyes.

Marla took a long drag on her half-smoked Chesterfield, looked at it, then stabbed it out in the ashtray, not bothering to sculpt the tip.  A smile brushed her lips as she exhaled the smoke and pushed her cigarette case to the side.

Tony smiled back and squeezed her hand.

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