A Death in Pilsen (Excerpt)
“Five Minutes More,” by Frank Sinatra of course, came from the jukebox in the hallway leading to the dank restrooms, although you could barely hear Frank’s voice above the din.
She sat halfway down the long, scarred mahogany bar, a bottle of Bohemian and a glass on a coaster in front of her. The brown bottle was empty, the clear glass half full. She crossed her right leg saucily over her left, showing all calf and almost as much thigh. Good legs, enhanced by what were probably rayon stockings, given the scarcity of nylons in these early postwar days. The stool to her left was empty. He slid in.
“Mind if I take this seat?”
“I cannot honestly claim ownership of it,” she sniffed, taking a drag on her cigarette and tossing her blonde hair in a gesture of indifference.
“You sound foreign. Like maybe…English?” He gave her what he had been told was an engaging grin.
“Well now, aren’t you ever the clever one,” she snapped, smirking. “Did you manage to work that out all by yourself?”
“I…” He didn’t expect such a reaction, especially in a neighborhood bar where a besotted conviviality was supposed to be the norm. But he had gotten rebuffed in saloons before, and he shifted to what had been successful in the past–the humble approach. “I’m sorry; I certainly didn’t mean to be insulting. I really like your…your accent, whatever it is.”
She raised an eyebrow. “I’m glad to hear that, yes I am. One very soon gets tired of people thinking that you’re different.” The trace of a smile creased a mouth generously coated with fiery red lipstick.
“But different can be good,” he said with a deprecating nod, waving to the bartender. “Can I buy you a drink?”
“Only if it would make you feel good,” she responded woodenly as “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” kicked in on the jukebox.
“Yes, it would make me feel good,” he told her as he felt the sweat begin to percolate under his arms. He had entered territory where he didn’t hold the high ground.
“The beer in this country is truly wretched,” she pronounced, wrinkling her nose. “We wouldn’t so much as touch this bilge back home.”
He started to ask about “back home,” but checked himself. One rebuff was enough for now. “What would you like?” he asked. “Name it.”
“Scotch, a good Scotch–if they even have one here.” She mashed her cigarette butt in a metal ashtray.
“What’s your best Scotch?” he asked the bony, sallow-faced bartender, who smoothly pivoted to the back of the bar, pulled down a bottle, and held it out for inspection.
She shrugged. “Suppose it will have to do. One can’t be choosy now, can one?”
He ordered Scotch on the rocks for both of them and held out his pack of Chesterfields. She took one and he lit it, noting the thin silver band on her ring finger.
She nodded. “Sorry to say.”
“You don’t want to hear my life story.”
“Try me–I’m a good listener.”
She took a sip of her drink. “Life doesn’t always work out the way you think it will.”
“Huh! I could write a book on that subject.”
“Divorced,” he said, torching his own Chesterfield.
“At least you’re free now, which is more than I can say for myself.”
“What’s stopping you…from getting divorced yourself, that is? There’s all that red tape to go through, of course, but it’s not illegal to split up. Or are you Catholic?”
She shook her head. “It’s like admitting defeat. I came all the way across the bloody Atlantic for this.” She turned her palms up and spread her arms, as if this gritty little bar on West 18th Street in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood were the root of all her problems.
“What about your husband?”
She made a snorting sound. “What about him?”
“Is he treating you badly?”
“If you mean is he pinching every stinking penny we have until it squeals, yes, he damned well is. I haven’t had a new pair of shoes since I came across the pond.”
“Hey, Eddie, I gotta go now. See you tomorrow night, okay?” The speaker was a slender, chestnut-haired young woman with light blue eyes who was sitting on the other side of the blonde. He hadn’t noticed her.
“Okay, I’ll be here as usual, love,” the blonde said.
“Friend of yours?” he asked after the brunette had clicked out into the night on her high heels.
“Marge? Yes, we both are here often. She’s truly a good sort.”
“What did she call you–Eddie?”
She laughed dryly. “Don’t you go worrying yourself now, mate, I’m not a chap in ladies’ togs. The name’s Edwina. Not a common label here, but it is where I come from.”
“It sounds much better than Eddie. So, what does your husband do?”
The song on the jukebox had ended, and before she could answer the question, one of the men along the bar called out to her: “Hey, Eddie, how ’bout you give us a song?”
She waved the request away. “Aw, you’ve heard me enough in here, Len.”
“No, no,” he persisted. “Give us just one. How ’bout that ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ you do so well?” That brought cries of “Yes! Yes!” and applause from the saloon’s denizens.
Eddie smiled and said, “Okay. Only the one song, though.” She stood and started in with the familiar strains of the patriotic British World War II tune made famous by Vera Lynn:
There’ll be blue birds over the White Cliffs of Dover;
Tomorrow just you wait and see…
When she had finished the full lyrics, the bar exploded in cheers. Eddie blew kisses all around and went back to her stool.
“That was wonderful,” the visitor told her, meaning it. “You sound like a professional singer.”
“I’d like to be,” she said, flushed from the adulation. “Vera Lynn, the English star, she’s my idol. I want to be able to sing that song like she does.”
“Well, it sounds absolutely swell to me. Say, before you got up to sing, I started to ask about your husband. What does he do?”
She glared at the drink on the bar in front of her. “He mainly works, works, works. Always talking about overtime, and how we need money for a down payment on a house. Never mind me sitting at home alone every miserable night with nothing except the wireless–or the radio, as you Yanks like to call it–to keep me company. But that was before I started coming in here. You might call this my freedom,” she said, spreading her arms to encompass the bar.
She had seemed attractive to him when he strode into the bar, but the longer they talked, the less appealing and the more hard-boiled she appeared to become. He figured the scowl she wore had become frozen on her face.
“Well,” he said, rising to leave, “I hope that everything works out between you and your husband.”
“Not likely, Mate,” she said over her shoulder as he turned toward the door. “I’d like to kill that bloody bastard.”
“Seems like every day now there’s another story about a ship loaded with war brides coming over here,” Dirk O’Farrell of the Chicago Sun observed between slurps of coffee as he paged through his paper’s final edition. “Wonder how all the good old American girls feel about these English and French and Dutch honeys, and even some frauleins, of all things, taking GIs off the marriage market. It doesn’t seem quite right to me, somehow.”
“And just how would you have stopped it, Dirk?” asked Packy Farmer of the Herald American, contemplating one of his misshapen little hand-rolled cigarettes before he lit it. “Put blinders on our soldiers when they’re not on duty? Or maybe lock them in their barracks at night? You’d have had a full-scale revolt on your hands, I’ll wager.”
“True enough,” O’Farrell answered. “There’s no way of keeping nature from…well, from taking its course, shall we say. Not that all of our boys over there were exactly honest with the young ladies of Europe. You may remember a story a few weeks back–it was in your very own Tribune, Malek–about this girl over there, England I think, who fell for this soldier from North Carolina.
“He fed her this line about how he had a plantation back home. When she got there, she learned it was nothing but a shack deep in the backwoods, miles from civilization. She took one look, got the hell out of there, and grabbed the very next train up to New York. They found her later holed up in some Manhattan hotel, mad as hell.”
“She ever go back to the guy?” Farmer asked.
“Story didn’t say,” O’Farrell answered, “but I’d lay eight to five that she ended up on a boat back to where she came from.”
“What do you think, Snap?” Farmer posed, swiveling to face me. “You were over there toward the end. You must have seen lots of romances blooming between our boys and the local sweeties.”
“Yeah, Malek,” the sawed-off Eddie Metz of the Times piped up, after blowing his pathetic version of a smoke ring. “Even though you’re married, I’ll bet you had all kinds of chances to…you know.”
“No, Eddie, I don’t know,” I shot back. “I wasn’t there in uniform, as you damn well are aware; I was a correspondent for the Tribune. And my editors back here in Chicago didn’t leave me a whole lot of time to go out on the town. They labored under some quaint theory that I was there to grind out copy, lots of it. I worked harder than I ever have.”
“If that’s your story, by all means, stick with it, Snap,” O’Farrell said with a smirk. He leaned back and contemplated the peeling paint of indeterminate color on the ceiling. “No one on this side of the drink will ever be the wiser. What puzzles me, though, is why, after the paper brought you home from Europe, you actually asked to have your old beat back. I mean, you had all those bylines from England and Germany, and then you want to park yourself in this grimy dump with us again.”
“It was just that I couldn’t bear to be away from you fine fellows any longer,” I deadpanned as they guffawed and groaned.
But Dirk O’Farrell had a point. For years, I had toiled as a police reporter for the Chicago Tribune, biggest of the city’s five daily newspapers, in the pressroom at Police Headquarters, 1121 S. State St., Chicago, USA. Beginning shortly after Pearl Harbor, I had nagged various of the Trib editors to make me a foreign correspondent. Early in ’45, not long after Catherine and I were married, they finally got tired of hearing me whine and sent me off to the paper’s London bureau, where there was a temporary opening. Catherine stayed home, as it was clear I wouldn’t be there for more than a few months.
It was an exciting, energizing time to be in England, along with all the other newspaper correspondents from across the country and around the world, to say nothing of the likes of Eric Sevareid and Edward R. Murrow. I even met Eisenhower twice and went to Berlin to cover the Potsdam Conference where Truman, Stalin, and Churchill decided, for good or ill, on the shape postwar Europe would take. It was there, in mid-conference, that Clement Attlee, the Labor Party candidate who had defeated Churchill as prime minister in the summer election, took over Britain’s seat at the table.
When I returned to Chicago late in ’45, my stock at the paper was high, and I almost surely could have landed a spot as a general assignment reporter. But now that I was married again, I found I liked keeping regular hours, and the editors were happy to have me back in the Headquarters Press Room on the day shift.
I replaced a guy who was both lazy and incompetent, and who now works in public relations, writing florid press releases that extol, among other things, the gastronomic delights of dining at a chain of cut-rate steak houses in the city.
So here I was, back with the same crew that had been at Police Headquarters for a decade or longer–the aforementioned O’Farrell, Farmer, and Metz, plus Anson Masters of the Daily News.
“While we are on the subject of war brides, Mr. Malek,” rumbled Masters, the dean of this press room corps, “I recall that you told us that a cousin of yours had married one.”
“Ah, Anson, your memory still functions despite your advanced years,” I told him. “Corporal Charlie Malek, late of our very own United States Army, has brought himself home a bride from England, name of Edwina. The couple is now ensconced in a four-room flat in that fine old Czech enclave of Pilsen, the very neighborhood where yours truly was himself born and reared.”
“And they are happy, I presume?” Masters asked, running a hand over his bald and freckled pate.
“Moderately, as far as one can tell,” I said, neglecting to mention that both Catherine and I had felt the tension between the couple on the two occasions we had been with them. In particular, Edwina had snapped at Charlie several times, usually because of his long working hours as a welder for the gas company.
My cousin, a quiet sort–some might go so far as to call him humble–pointed out to her that if they were to buy a house in the suburbs, they needed the money his overtime work brought in for the down payment.
“Well, Charles,” she told him in a tone that seemed to be mimicking some British actress playing a duchess, “if having a house is more important to you than having a wife who is happy, then so be it. Sitting alone in an empty flat night after night is no lark for me, to that I can attest.”
After they had left our place in Oak Park that night following a chicken dinner, Catherine shook her head in bewilderment. “What do you think of her, Steve?” she asked as she washed, and I dried, the dishes.
“The woman doesn’t exactly hide her displeasure, does she? I wonder what kind of life she thought she was getting over here.”
“Obviously not the kind she’s got now. Did you see a lot of others like her in England who were anxious to come to this country?”
“Only one that I can recall offhand. I was in a pub near Russell Square in London one evening, standing alone at the bar with a pint, minding my own business. A little redhead, she couldn’t have been more than five feet tall, was sitting with a girlfriend in a corner, bragging somewhat loudly about how she was going to be marrying this American pilot. ‘We’ll be living the high life,’ she told her friend between puffs on a cigarette. ‘His people, they’re nobs, truly loaded. His Daddy owns some sort of business in Nebraska, what they call a drugstore over there, and I figure my Tommy will someday inherit it.'”
“‘You are very lucky,’ her friend said with a combination of awe and envy in her voice.
“The redhead nodded. ‘I do feel fortunate,’ she answered smugly. ‘But don’t you go fretting, dear; maybe you’ll find yourself a nice, generous Yank, too. It’s the only way to get out of this place, this life. I think we’re all entitled to better times after what we’ve had to go through for these last six years.'”
Catherine dried her hands on a dishtowel and shook her head again. “That sounds like it could have been Edwina talking,” she murmured. “I wonder how life has turned out for that redhead, especially if she found out that her father-in-law is only a small-town corner druggist in a tiny burg, and her husband is his only employee in the store.”
“That’s a very likely scenario,” I agreed, “and the guy probably wants to spend the rest of his life in that little town smack in the middle of nowhere. Well, I don’t blame these girls for wanting to come over here. Things are really tough in England right now–shortages of everything…food, clothes, housing, you name it. To say nothing of the bombed-out rubble and unexploded bombs, especially in London and the bigger industrial cities. It’ll be years before they fully recover. I just hope things work themselves out between Charlie and Edwina.”
“I do, too,” Catherine said, her voice lacking the same conviction mine did.