The Bells of Times Square
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Every New Year’s Eve since 1946, Nate Meyer has ventured alone to Times Square to listen for the ghostly church bells he and his long-lost wartime lover vowed to hear together. This year, however, his grandson Blaine is pushing Nate through the Manhattan streets, revealing his secrets to his silent, stroke-stricken grandfather.
When Blaine introduces his boyfriend to his beloved grandfather, he has no idea that Nate holds a similar secret. As they endure the chilly death of the old year, Nate is drawn back in memory to a much earlier time . . . and to Walter.
Long before, in a peace carefully crafted in the heart of wartime tumult, Nate and Walter forged a loving home in the midst of violence and chaos. But nothing in war is permanent, and now all Nate has is memories of a man his family never knew existed. And a hope that he’ll finally hear the church bells that will unite everybody—including the lovers who hid the best and most sacred parts of their hearts.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Dawn of a New Age
“Mom, is he ready?”
If Nate Meyer could have smiled, he would have, but his face didn’t do that anymore.
“Blaine, honey, it’s freezing outside. Really? Are we really doing this?”
Nate closed his rheumy eyes. His wrinkled, liver-spotted hand shimmied as he plucked at the polyester blanket across his lap. Please, Stephanie. Please. The bells. I might hear the bells.
“Mom, he lives for this, you know that.”
Good boy. Blaine, such a good boy. Dark black hair, big brown eyes—couldn’t look more like me as a young man if we’d tried.
But then, Stephanie had married a nice boy, a dentist, with black hair and brown eyes as well, and she’d laughed about that. A good Jewish girl marrying a Jewish dentist—it was like she’d read a manual, yes? Her children would look almost frum. Nate and Carmen had laughed quietly about that as well, because Stephanie herself looked German. Her brother Alan had blond hair and brown eyes, although Nate suspected that after he hit twenty-five, the blond streaks had come from a bottle. Well, yes, a man could do that now, in these days. A man could dye his hair and not be accused of being a . . . What had Walter called them?
Poof. Yes, that was the word.
A man could streak his hair and dress himself fancy, and not be afraid of being a poof.
In his head, Nate laughed, and he could see himself as Walter had seen him: just like Blaine with his dark curly hair, dark-brown eyes, dark lashes, full lips, a slight space between his teeth, and a nose with a decided bow outwards. He’d always looked like a Jew, had never been ashamed of it, not even when he’d moved from his predominantly Jewish neighborhood in the Lower East Side to the barracks with the other USAAF privates, some of them from places in the country that had never seen a Jew before. That posting hadn’t lasted long, though.
Somewhere, somebody had seen his recruitment papers. The degree in art history meant nothing, but his father was a clockmaker, and Nate worked in his shop. His specialty? Cameras, the new and the old. And Nathan Meyer suddenly became a valuable commodity, didn’t he? Six-pointed star and all, Nate could work cameras, and in 1941, when Brits had just started figuring out how to outfit their Spitfires so the pilots didn’t die and the cameras didn’t freeze, that man who could take a picture was like gold, wasn’t he?
Nate hadn’t hidden his gloating, either, when he’d been recruited by the OSS while in the USAAF. He’d been inducted into the 25th Tactical and Reconnaissance Wing—more specifically, the 654th bombardment. Him, Nate Meyer. Even he had something special, something the OSS needed.
It had started with the clocks. Everyone had something to contribute, because that was the war, right? Even Nate’s mother had planted a victory garden in the flower bed she kept in the little concrete apron behind the family brownstone. Before the crash, when Nate was a little boy, she’d worn gloves when dusting to keep her hands soft. And now, with the crash and the war? She was gardening!
And Nate, who had needed to beg his father to buy an old Brownie and then had taken it apart, put it together, learned all the words—f-stop, shutter speed, lens width, scope—while his father complained bitterly about the newfangled thing and the expense of the invention, that Nate now had a special skill to offer. So he got the promotion and the raise in pay and the better bunk, and all for taking pictures.
His father hadn’t been so proud. Pictures? What good were pictures? Officers needed pictures; the war needed men! But of course, pictures of officers were what Nate had told his parents he took so his letters home didn’t look like a picture puzzle. In reality, his pictures were very different . . .
“Grandpa? Are you ready yet?”
Not so ready. Because my body is meat, boy, and no amount of wiping it off or swaddling it in these acrylic afghans your mother makes will render it more than meat.
Blaine didn’t hear him, of course. He was a strong boy, and Nate had enough of himself to wrap his arms around Blaine’s neck so the boy could lift him up from his bed and set him in his wheelchair. Stephanie’s husband—another good boy. Oh, Nate was surrounded by good boys. He was grateful—had a ramp installed. So thank heavens, there would be no bump-kerthump, bump-kerthump, as there had been so often in the first days after the stroke.
“Mom! Where’s his coat? The thick wool one, with the leather gloves in the pocket?”
“Blaine, do you really want to—”
There was a knock at the front, and Stephanie left off her nagging, probably to open the door.
“That’s Tony,” Blaine said. He had always liked talking to Nate and had kept up the habit of it even after Nate couldn’t talk anymore. Nate might find it irritating as hell, but at least Blaine talked about real things. He certainly could do without Stephanie’s yammering about buying something new for the house. He hated the new things—the new tile, the new tables—because her mother had worked so hard for the old things. It felt disloyal, this opening of the house, the sunshiny colors, the skylight over the living room. Hearing Stephanie justify these things to Nate—that only hurt him more.
But Blaine talked about politics, he talked about books.
And because Nate couldn’t talk, couldn’t tell, couldn’t condemn, Blaine also talked about Tony.
Nate lived for Blaine’s monologues about Tony.
At first it had been Tony’s mind—the funny things that Tony had said. Tony was in Blaine’s sociology course at NYU, and he had the best things, the best shows, the best songs.
Then it had been Tony’s laughter, the jokes that he told and how he liked action-adventure movies and didn’t like the Oscar ones because they were too sad. Blaine had been disappointed by this at first, because Blaine himself was always so serious, always so worried about tomorrow. But Nate had listened, and Blaine had started to laugh at himself more, appreciate that you needed to laugh in order to work toward a better tomorrow.
Sometimes Blaine would talk about how he’d been giving Tony lessons about being a Jew, which made Nate laugh inside. When Nate had been Blaine’s age, he hadn’t even spoken Yiddish in an attempt to not align himself with his father or any of the traditions that Nate had been forced to follow, simply because they were traditions. He had changed when he’d come home from the war, embraced those stories, loved those traditions, for Carmen’s sake, for his own, for his family’s.
And Blaine had learned to love them as well. Blaine would study the Passover Seder stories and the Purim stories, and tell them to Tony, and then come home and tell his zayde all about Tony’s reactions. So yes, Nate had heard all about Tony’s love of a good story.
More recently, he’d heard all about Tony’s smile.
But Nate had yet to meet Tony, and now, hearing the suppressed excitement in Blaine’s voice, he was suddenly excited, as well. He was going out, out into the cold to listen for the bells, and he would get to meet Blaine’s Tony. He made an effort then, worked hard, and a sound came out. A happy sound, he hoped.
“You like that?” Blaine smiled while he helped Nate into his coat. “You want to meet Tony? He’ll like you. I told him you were a hero in the war, you know? He thought that was pretty awesome.”
Awesome—everything these days was awesome or excellent or wonderful. What about Blaine’s generation made them talk in superlatives? Nate missed the days when you could understate things, when it would be nice or nifty or interesting instead.
Of course, if Nate had lived in a time when your whole life could be accomplished on a little glowing box on the kitchen table, well then, everything might indeed have been awesome, wouldn’t it?
But Blaine didn’t hear Nate’s thoughts on awesome.
“I wanted him to meet you. I mean, I know you can’t exactly tell him stories, Zayde, but you know . . .”
You wanted to know if I would welcome him, love him as you do already. You wanted to know if Zayde would bless you and make it all good, even if your mother would say to stop this mishegas already, there is no gay in her family.
The moment stretched on achingly as Blaine helped him with his gloves. Nate remembered this boy when he was a child. He would cling to Nate’s hand, bury his face in Nate’s thick wool coat whenever they went outdoors during the holidays. New York, even the Upper East Side, was loud and frightening for a small boy. And now, the boy had found another hand to help him through, and he wanted to know if his Zayde would bind their hands together, like a rabbi at a wedding.
Nate longed to give his blessing.
Blaine buttoned up Nate’s coat. He was sweltering inside it, but, well, it was better than freezing as soon as they made it outside. Blaine was in the middle of tucking another blanket around Nate’s lap when he turned.
“Tony!” The warmth of his voice, the pitch of the enthusiasm, told Nate far too much about how hard it was to be here, wrapping his grandfather up like a swaddled child, to help him honor this old tradition.
“Is he all ready?” Tony asked cheerfully, and Nate’s good eye focused on him.
Oh my. The left side of his face could still move, and he knew he was smiling in pleased surprise.
Tony was a handsome boy, with skin nearly the color of Nate’s black wool coat and teeth that gleamed against that dark skin. Oh, look at them! Boys who could look at each other and smile like that, dark skin and six-pointed star and all.
If Nate could have spoken, he would have said Awesome! or Excellent!
Blaine . . . such a good boy.
Of course, Nate’s father would have said no such thing about Blaine’s choice. But then Selig Meyer had not been a fan of Carmen when she had first followed Nate home from the library in the fall of ’47—although he’d never said so to her face. Too fair, too blue eyed, too delicate, even though her parents went to the same temple as Nate’s family, when his father went at all. But he’d come to love her—probably more than he loved his only son—by the end.
A boy—any boy, no less a boy like this one—would have sent Nate running from the city, his father’s outraged disappointment chasing him like a black wave.
But then, no boy had ever really appealed to Nate after Provence Claire La Lune. No girl, either, but Carmen had been kind, and determined. A marriage—a kosher marriage—had been no less than her ultimate goal, and Nate, so lost after the war, what was he to do?
“Hereyago, Mr. Meyer!” Tony was right behind him, pushing the chair down the ramp, holding the back of it so very low to keep it from pitching. “Blaine’s been looking forward to this for a week, you know. Kept trying to tell me about the bells.”
Nate glanced around, his right eye rolling frantically in the useless, drooping side of his face. He made a noise then, a panicked and inarticulate noise, because—
“Blaine’s back in the house, Mr. Meyer,” Tony said quickly. “No worries. You got no worries at all. He was just checking with his mom. Didn’t want her to panic none, ’cause he said he was going to edge in close to 37th Street tonight, and it’s a bit of a walk, and sort of a riot, but you know that.”
Nate let out a long exhale, and the slap of the wind tried to steal that breath from him as it went. Of course, of course. Blaine would not leave him in the hands of someone who would not care for him. That was not his way.
“You ready?” Blaine called from the top of the stairs. “Ready, Grandpa? We’re going to stop down at the corner for some hot chocolate, and then make our way toward Times Square.”
“Man, that place is gonna be crowded. Do you really wanna go all that way?”
Nate couldn’t be sure, but he thought there might have been a touch of . . . something. There was a pause that bespoke intimacy, of that he was certain.
“We’re not going all the way into the square,” Blaine said quietly. “We’re going near the square. Close enough to hear church bells, if there are any.”
“Church bells,” Tony said blankly. “I know you told me this, but why are we listening for church bells again? Do church bells even ring on New Year’s at Times Square?”
I don’t know, Nate thought. I never heard them.
“And besides, aren’t you Jewish?”
Blaine laughed shyly. “You really have to ask?”
Tony’s return laugh was fond. “No, I guess not. So why church bells? Why not temple bells or something?”
Blaine sighed. “I’m not really sure. It’s just . . . It’s weird, really. Grandpa, for as long as I can remember, he’s gone on a walk on New Year’s Eve—Mom said he did it when she was little too. Grandma never went. He always said he was listening for bells.”
Once. My Carmen went once. Then she gave the walk to me, my once a year, to listen for church bells.
“That’s sort of cool,” Tony said, and Nate could feel his regard. For a moment, Nate was the handsome, strapping man who had gone off to war, and he was confused. Wasn’t he wounded, slight, limping on the damaged body that kept him from returning to active duty, the lone stranger in any crowd? Older, seasoned, a child on his hip and one by the hand? Middle-aged, successful, a hard-working photographer with his own exclusive Manhattan boutique?
Old, bereft, a widower, remembering how to make his own toast and the reasons a man should get out of bed in the morning?
Helpless, afloat in his own head, his body a lingering wreck of lung sounds and heartbeats, his only power in his thrice-weekly visits to the pool with an aqua teacher?
Young and in love, holding his male lover to his chest after the fury of the mishkav zakhar, the one act between men that was considered unforgivable, that reshaped the hearts of them both.
Oh God, the merciful and wise, who was Nathan Selig Meyer, and where was he in time?
The distant sound of shouts called him to the present, the faraway merriment reminding him that those shouts of joy were just out of his reach.
Walter, are you there? Are they ringing the bells? I can’t hear the bells!
“Here we go, Grandpa,” Blaine said, pulling the wheelchair back next to a bench. They were in a lovely neighborhood, not too far from the statue of the tailor and the needle. He used to see stage actors here, sometimes. Nate didn’t know if they owned or rented, but he loved the excitement of walking down the street and, Hey! There was someone you’d seen perpetrate magic on the stage or the screen.
He enjoyed this place, this bench under the tree. Blaine had chosen well.
He could hear Blaine and Tony sitting down on the bench beside him, talking animatedly, in a way that bespoke great familiarity.
“So, we’re out here to hear bells that don’t get rung?” Tony sounded skeptical, but playful too.
“Yeah,” Blaine replied shyly. “I mean, I looked it up once. The most I could get was a reference, mind you, that a nearby church rang bells on New Year’s Eve during the war.”
“Did you keep it?”
“Are you kidding? You’ve seen me study!”
Tony made an exasperated sound. “Augh, kid, you are killing me. You know I live for this stuff.”
“I’m a year younger than you, smart-ass, but look here. I brought you something.”
Nate saw Blaine pull something out of his coat, and inside, he smiled.
“Oh wow! A scrapbook!”
“Yeah, apparently my great-grandmother kept a scrapbook of Zayde—”
“Thereyago, talking Jewish to me again!”
Blaine laughed, but it wasn’t embarrassed. “Yiddish, Tony. We call it Yiddish, and I only know a few words. It’s like ‘Grandpa,’ but, you know, affectionate, like ‘Papa’ or ‘Grampy’—Zayde.”
A speculative silence then. “Zayde . . . That’s nice. What about, you know . . .” And now Tony was the shy one. “What I want to call you, but nothing sounds right.”
“Mmm.” Blaine’s voice fell, then rose intimately. “Tateleh, I think.”
Tony laughed a little. “That don’t hardly sound real. But, you know, better than ‘baby.’”
“Oy gevalt!” Blaine exaggerated, and they both laughed again, the sound low and personal. “Anything’s better than ‘baby’!”
More laughter, and instead of feeling excluded, Nate felt the opposite. Like he was in on the joke, in on the secret. He knew something about these two young men that nobody else did.
“Seriously,” Tony said, the laughter in his voice faded and sad. “You got all these traditions—”
“Not so many, now,” Blaine said quickly. “My grandparents, they were Reformed Jews—sort of like, modern but, you know, you gotta say it different. I’m not sure if Zayde believed, exactly, but he thought it was important. Traditions were important to him—us belonging somewhere. He said that a lot to my mom, that we needed a chance to belong. He wanted that. But”—and Nate could imagine Blaine’s shrug—“my parents, they barely made it to temple.”
“You got a bar mitzvah, though,” Tony chided.
Blaine grunted. Direct hit. “It was a party, you know? I said some verses, recited some Torah, got the party. Mom didn’t want her neighbors to think we couldn’t afford it; it was a status thing.”
“But you liked the words. You told me that. The words mean something to you.”
“Yeah, but only the good ones. Why is this important, anyway?”
It was Tony’s turn to grunt, and Nate couldn’t see, couldn’t turn his head, but he heard what sounded like a kiss. On the cheek, on the hand, on the lips, Nate couldn’t be sure, but men, they didn’t sit and kiss parts of each other when they were talking about sports or the weather.
“Because it is,” Tony said lowly. “I want to look at your family scrapbook and say, ‘Hey! That’s my boyfriend’s history!’ Is that so bad?”
“No.” There were more kissing sounds, and Nate burned inside to talk to them, to tell them, to explain. The Orthodox rabbis said one thing and the Reformed rabbis said another. It was supposed to be okay if you were that way, as long as you didn’t act on it, but Nate had been young, he’d felt the pull, the strength like steel springs, binding a human heart to another. What was talk of an unseen God when the world had fallen to chaos? All was hell and violence—how bad could the mishkav zakhar be?
“Does your mom know?” Blaine asked when the kissing sounds stopped. “Did you tell her?”
“About you? No.”
Blaine grunted shortly, but it sounded hurt, not angry.
“You need to be ready to come out to your family first, you know that right?” Tony said sternly, and it must have been an argument they’d had before, because Blaine’s sound changed.
He sighed instead. In Nate’s line of vision, a parade of cars trolled slowly down the street, headlamps slicing through the darkness like the wind was currently slicing through Nate’s coat. Light, steel, it all found a way in.
“But my mom knows about me,” Tony said, sighing. “I told you that. When I was a little kid, I said I liked boys. She cried, she tried to talk me out of it, she threatened to have my uncle beat the gay out of me. But Uncle Jason wouldn’t do it, and in the end, she just accepted it. I just had to be . . . you know . . .”
“Stubborn,” Blaine said. “You.”
Nate wanted to see them. More cars wandered the night, but in his mind, he saw that beautiful young man with the skin like night touching Blaine’s hair, his forehead, his cheek. Tenderness, Nate imagined. There would be tenderness.
Abruptly, his skin—which had deadened, had become blind to the realm of touch—ached for tenderness like amputees were said to ache for missing limbs. Once, Nate had known such tenderness, and he would never feel it again, not in this body.
“Would they cut you off?” Tony asked. “If you came out? If we moved in, like we’ve been talking about?”
“Eh . . .” Blaine said uncertainly. “I don’t know.” Nate heard rustling, and from his finite line of vision, he saw Blaine’s knees shift so the boy was facing Nate. “I don’t think Grandpa would, even with all the tradition, because . . . I don’t know. Because he was just too good a guy. But my mom, well . . .” He grunted. “I heard my grandpa call her kalta neshomeh once, when she was redecorating the house after Grandma died. He was hurt, you know? I mean, she said he was just being cheap because, well, I guess it was a thing. The Depression had everybody saving money and stuff, but it was more than that— All of Grandma’s stuff was getting put in storage and sold, and Grandpa was shoved into a room and . . . and it wasn’t right.”
“So what does it mean?”
“I had to ask our rabbi. I think he yelled at Grandpa for it too. It means ‘cold soul.’”
Tony’s low whistle made Nate smile inside. Oh yes, yes I did call her that. She deserved it, selling her mother’s things like that. No, we did not go to temple as often as we could have, but we had a happy home. Those things should not have been sold as if they had no meaning. Carmen’s old jewelry boxes, her costume jewelry, the desk where she’d done the store and family accounts for more than forty years. Couldn’t Stephanie have waited until Nate died? It wasn’t like he had more time than anyone else! Of course, Nate chuckled inwardly, that had been six years ago, and he was still hanging around. Perhaps he did have more time!
“Wow,” Tony said in the resulting quiet. Then, low voiced, urgent: “I have my own apartment. You have a job working at the hospital. I mean, we’ve talked about it before, but even if they cut you off, you could move in anyway. You know I want you with me, right?”
“I want to be there too,” Blaine said plaintively. “But my mother—”
“I mean, you could still be a doctor, even if your mother doesn’t want to pay for school. You’d have to take out loans and stuff, but, it’s like, people are always so afraid of not having any money, but whether you have it or not, you’re living your life, and that’s the fun part, right? If you’ve got food, a roof over your head—”
He was so urgent, so upset. Nate wanted to reassure him. He loves you, Tony. Don’t worry. Our boy will do the right thing.
“Sha shtil, tateleh,” Blaine said, and his knees shifted in Nate’s vision again. Nate could picture them, Blaine holding Tony so that his face buried into Blaine’s deceptively wide shoulder, their faces close together, a dropped kiss on Tony’s forehead. “I hear you.”
“Yeah, well, you don’t have anything to say to me!” There was a rustle, and Tony must have stood up because so did Blaine. Nate gave up chasing cars in the darkness. He closed his eyes and saw the boys—his boys—like a movie.
Oh, Walter. It looks like a good one. A romance—I wonder how it ends.
“I want to say yes,” Blaine murmured. “But I need to ask Zayde.”
“You need to ask—”
Yes, bubeleh, I am confused, as well.
“Don’t say it,” Blaine told him softly. “I just . . . I want so badly to talk to someone in my family, do you understand? He’s the one person who told me about tradition and about banding together with people who care about you, and he’s the one person who can’t say he doesn’t love me anymore.”
“I hear you.” An ironic pause. “Bells, huh?”
“Yes. I am not so sure we will hear any tonight, but if we do, maybe we should take it as a sign, you think?”
“I think I’m freezing my ass off, that’s what I think. You said coffee?”
“Thank you. See it? Three blocks up.”
“Yeah, I know. Is your gramps gonna want some?”
“Get him hot chocolate—me too, for that matter. I’m not such a fan of coffee.”
Tony’s briskness faded, and Nate saw a hand, covered in a bright-red wool mitten, reach out and pluck off Blaine’s hat so the other hand could ruffle his curly hair. Tony stepped into Nate’s vision and placed the hat carefully on Blaine’s head before kissing him on the forehead.
“I know you’re not,” he said fondly. “I’m just as happy you prefer ‘hot chocolate.’”
Blaine choked on a guffaw. “That was awful. Oh my God, I should break it off with you just for that!”
“You wouldn’t really—” beat “—would you?”
“No. Oh God, no. I just need a minute, Tony. Just, let me swallow it all. Coming out, moving out, is . . . irrevocable. I want to be sure.”
“The fact that you take it so seriously? That’s why I love you. That’s why it’s worth the wait. Just know that all I want for both of us is— Is there a Yiddish word for ‘everything’?”
“I don’t know,” Blaine said softly, and they were standing so close!
“That’s what I want for you,” Tony said, and this time the kiss was personal, intimate, on the lips.
Nate couldn’t look away.
Alz. Alz is the word. That’s what you want for each other. Alz. Isn’t that what we wanted, Walter? Isn’t that what you wanted for us? Wasn’t that what we were looking for, listening for, with the bells?
But Walter didn’t answer, and Nate watched in frustration as Blaine’s Tony disappeared into the night, looking for the coffee shop. The lights around them, from the streets, from the cars, were swallowed up, and the darkness washed over his vision like a closed shutter, and when the shutter opened again, he was back, back in 1943, before Walter, before Carmen, when his world was narrowed to the tiny bunk with Hector and Joey and the missions he flew and the danger and the horror of a war that had swallowed the world . . .
“That’s a dame!” Joey Shanahan muttered after a low whistle. “Hey, Meyer. Did you get that shot?”
Nate glanced up from the viewfinder of his 35mm Leica Rangefinder and whistled, pretending he’d noticed the pretty WAAF officer walking across the field of Harrington.
He hadn’t. He’d been framing the big, powerful B-4 bombers instead.
“Yeah, you should get a picture!” Joey nodded, decidedly enthusiastic. Joey had apparently been striking out with women on a regular basis. He wasn’t a bad-looking kid, really, Nate thought objectively. He stood average height, with dark-blond hair and blue eyes—the picture of the Irish people in the same way Nate was the picture of Jewish descent—and his mouth was wide and smiled easily. He even had sort of a crooked-grinned charm, but oy! Could that boy talk!
“You know, you should take a lot more pictures of dames in your spare time, you know that? I mean, you get the air base, the crowds, the seashore—why don’t you got any dames?”
“For one thing, I don’t call them that,” Nate said, pulling a corner of his mouth up in faint derision. He liked Joey, liked him fine. If he was taking pictures of people right now, he’d take a picture of Joey, eyes as guileless as the sea. But Joey seemed to be incredibly single-minded about the thing—the one thing—Nate had never had a particular interest in. Oh yes, Nate did admire a pretty girl sometimes; pretty girls made pretty pictures. But he wasn’t interested in spending his leave in some strange woman’s bed. It wasn’t kosher—there was supposedly no joy in that sort of sex, and while Nate’s parents hadn’t been Orthodox, they had raised him in the traditions out of a sense of obligation if nothing else.
And, well . . . girls just didn’t appeal. Not even a little, not to touch, not to linger over. But the new mission—that’s what appealed to him.
The missions were risky, which held an allure all its own. Risk meant you were doing your part, right? And flying in low in the middle of the night, dropping the M46 photoflash bombs to take pictures—it didn’t get much riskier than that. So much for his father saying Nate wasn’t a real man with the camera, that he couldn’t do his part with a degree in art history and no military skills whatsoever. Nate had been in the cockpit for six Joker missions thus far, and every damned one of them scared the hell out of him.
Of course, Joey and Hector were flying Red Stockings, and those weren’t a joke, either. They had to fly at high altitude, find a specific spot, and circle until Hector picked up the signal from the OSS officer who’d been dropped behind enemy lines earlier. Tough gig for Joey, circling around and around like that while Hector fiddled with the recording equipment to find the signal. Tougher still for the guy on the ground transmitting information and requesting information back—and hoping not to get killed!
Nate’s pilot, Captain Albert Thompson, RAF, was a stolid sort—late thirties, lived for his weekly letter from his wife and two children. Nate depended on him to get them home safely, and Albert depended on Nate to competently assure him that their foray into darkness hadn’t been in vain. Together, they were nothing like the fiery Hector and Joey, and Nate appreciated that. Three nights before, they’d been over Belgium when they’d been spotted by the Jerries. Albert had flown, closed mouthed, until they’d reached the air territory over St. Croix, and the stationed Allied planes had moved in and intercepted while Nate had taken pictures with a quiet resolve. Of course, it was dark, and even with his training and the special lens, Nate had only a general notion as to what he was looking for. But that didn’t matter, now did it? What mattered was that his pictures would be developed and analyzed, and the installations he was photographing would either be announced useful for the war effort or too crowded with civilians to destroy. Either way, it was necessary information to have, and Nate was proud.
“What’s wrong with calling a girl a dame? Hector, did you hear that? He thinks I’m not a gentleman enough to get a girl!” Joey sat at a folding card table in the sun outside their barracks, doing nav calculations for their next run. Most guys did their calculations once, twice, and then they were through, but Joey didn’t make it through high school before he started working at his father’s bar. He was smart, whip smart, and he wasn’t going to let anybody say that some uneducated Mick blew a mission because he couldn’t do the goddamned math.
“You’re not,” Hector said, grinning. He leaned up against the door with his face to the thin English sun. Having spent his whole life in Southern California, he was only truly happy when his bronze skin was glutted with sunshine, like an exotic houseplant or a napping cat. So far, England had proved a vast disappointment to him, but Hector wasn’t the complaining sort. Nobody at this base even knew what Chanukah was, which was why Nate had given Hector a postcard of St. Croix for Christmas so he’d always have a little sunshine. Hector hadn’t said much at the time, but he slept on one of the bottom bunks, and the postcard was right above him every time he woke.
“I am too a gentleman,” Joey muttered, mapping out his nav coordinates for the third time. “If I wasn’t a gentleman, I wouldn’t do such a good job of escorting you home!”
Hector laughed loudly, with his mouth open, as though he expected everyone to share the joy. Nate loved that about him: he was unapologetic about who he was. He spoke Spanish with a big, booming voice and proudly displayed a picture of himself, dancing with his girl, in a zoot suit that he claimed to be sky blue and gold, and spoke of fondly. “Me and the other pachucos, we’d dance the sailor boys to shame, you know?” Even after the riots, Hector showed that photo, because he wasn’t going to run scared just because the sailor boys had no sense of humor.
“Yeah, you take real good care of me, sweetheart. But maybe try those skills on someone who hasn’t seen you scratch your balls and your ass and brag about it while in the shower.”
Nate laughed, and after a year in the service, he didn’t even blush. He’d gone to a private school, and while boys could get crude in the locker rooms anywhere, it was when they said things like that out under the sun, where even women could hear you, that had made Nate uncomfortable at first. But only at first.
But then, he’d been watching Joey Shanahan scratch his balls and his ass simultaneously for nearly three months—ever since he’d been assigned here, specialized camera equipment and all. There weren’t so many OSS officers here at Menwith Hill that Nate could afford to alienate his roommate because he didn’t like the way the guy talked about scratching his balls.
Besides, watching Joey check and recheck the calculations reminded Nate of what Hector had said repeatedly: Joey wasn’t letting anyone die on his watch, particularly not the guy who had his back whenever they went looking for girls.
“You like it,” Joey retorted. “If you didn’t see me scratch my ass in the morning, you’d forget you needed that extra blanket to keep your pansy ass warm.”
Hector squinted at the gray sky and shuddered. “Nobody’s warm today, that’s for certain.”
No, not on this chilly day in March.
“It would be this cold in New York,” Nate said, thinking. He found he didn’t miss his family’s brownstone or his father’s small watch shop at all. He hadn’t waited for Pearl Harbor, no. Nate had watched, along with the rest of his family, as the Nazis had become more than just a frightening rumor, threatening their kin overseas, and metamorphosed into a terrifying, mind-twisting reality. Friends’ cousins had disappeared, letters had ceased, pleas to the State Department for news had gone unheeded. Nate’s Uncle Lev, whom he had never met, became a ghost on the tongues of his father and mother, overnight, one more mortal caution to haunt the brownstone, next to Nate’s dead brother and the children his mother’s body had not been able to sustain.
“Yeah?” Hector asked. He pulled a cigarette from the ever-present pack in his pocket and offered one to Joey. Joey demurred, because he was still working and he didn’t smoke when he was working, and Nate simply didn’t smoke. At first the guys had assumed it was because he was a Jew; that he was too fastidious to like the taste was beyond them.
“Yes,” Nate said, staring at the grayness ruminatively. “In fact, it would be even more bitter.” He cracked a smile. “Of course, in New York, they don’t have to put on flight gear and go miles into the air.”
A sudden silence descended then. There was a big push tonight in the 654th. More than two hundred of the men stationed at Menwith Hill were with tactical surveillance, and Nate figured that between him and Hector, they’d counted over twenty planes that were going up this night. Not a weather advance, which meant more dogfights and more casualties, but a surveillance push. Several planes going off to all quarters of Europe, some Joker, some Red Stocking, all of them with urgent orders that they didn’t share with anyone else. American, RAF—everybody was going up in the sky to see what was what.
Nate, who only played chess a little, thought about the way the old men in the park would sit back, surveying the entire board over their noses before letting go of a long, considering breath.
This moment right here was the Allied equivalent of sitting back, sliding their hands under their suspenders, and saying, Hmm, what is it we have to work with here, before beginning the game in earnest.
Sometimes, an awful lot of pawns would be left, rolling alongside the board, before those moments behind the chessboard ended. Nate worried about those pawns like he worried about the entire board. In fact, he worried more.
“Hey,” Hector said lowly, in the kind of voice that made Nate sidle a little closer, even aware that he and Joey were the only ones within earshot anyway.
“Where’re you going tonight?” Hector asked. “I mean, not specific-like, just, you know. Country at least, okay?”
“Germany,” Nate said without compunction for spilling secrets. There were no secrets between the three of them. “But I don’t know specifically where. You?”
“France. Some place called Provence Claire La Lune. Our operators down there say we might talk to some resistance fighters—our guys are supposed to encourage that, you know what I mean?”
“Yeah? Well, that’s a good thing.”
“I know it. What about you?”
Nate grunted. “The usual—take a picture at these coordinates—again? Got no clue. A month later, those coordinates are pulverized to powder. Or not.”
Hector grunted back. “It’s not personal enough,” he growled. “The Jerries, they don’t like the color of our skin, who our parents are—feels like a knee to the balls. We go five miles up and listen to voices—”
“Or two miles up and take pictures of clouds,” Nate finished for him. “Yes. Impersonal means for a very personal war. I understand. But what’s to do? Our skills weren’t marching and shooting, they were pictures and listening. It’s what we can—”
“You ready?” Albert stalked around the corner in midconversation. Well, he often did that—he didn’t like small talk for one thing. For another, he was in charge of settling new recruits. He met with his staff sergeants in the morning—the mother hen of the Menwith Hill barracks. He was busy, and he had no time to worry about OSS recruits with one lousy skill.
“We’re not going until . . .” Nate left the end meaningfully. He hadn’t been given a time; that was Albert’s purview.
“Twenty-one hundred,” Albert told him shortly. “Be outfitted and ready to belt in, yeah?” As though Nate had ever not been ready to belt in. “Meet me on the field, no fucking off to spank your monkey or bugger the rabbi or whatever the hell else you blokes do.”
“Yes, sir!” Nate saluted, because Albert was a superior officer and for no other reason. “Sir?” he asked, when it looked like Albert was going to stomp off.
“Where we going tonight?”
Albert grimaced. Yes, all destinations were classified, but it did help a photographer to know what he was dealing with. Albert called Nate over with a jerk of the head, and Nate left off his insouciant pose against the barracks.
“Stuttgart, like that means anything to you,” he said, voice low enough for Joey and Hector to be left out. “Looks like there’ll be good cloud cover, but there’s nothing friendly for pretty much everywhere. Be prepared to keep a sharp lookout and not just through the viewfinder. Can you do that or is it some sort of holy day?”
“I’m up for the job, sir!” Nate saluted again, and Albert glared, then stalked off. A good pilot, but not a kind man, at least not to Nate. And it was clear his heart was so very with the family he saw once a month on leave. Well, good for him. He could see family on leave. Nate couldn’t—and apparently Hector and Joey could only get hints of getting laid, and not all of that was Joey’s fault.
“Really, Meyer,” Joey asked, looking up from his calculations and leaning on his elbows, “what did you do to that guy?”
“Besides make him fly reconnaissance?” Nate asked with a shrug. “I have no idea. You think it’s because I’m a Jew?” That was rhetorical, of course.
“They don’t got Jews in England? Get out!” Hector laughed, turning his head to spit. “I thought that was Hitler’s problem. They got Jews everywhere!”
Nate raised an eyebrow. “We’re not cockroaches, but yes. Jews populate Europe much like Catholics—wherever there is a warm place to breed.”
Hector and Joey didn’t take offense; they laughed instead. No, you could not spend months smelling your roommates’ farts and not learn to be tolerant of one another’s differences. Of course, Hector had started to thaw with the postcard of St. Croix. With Joey, it had taken a tiny gold pin of the cross, which Joey wore on his hat, underneath the brim. Not Nate’s faith, no, but then, giving it some honor had made Joey feel like it wasn’t under attack by Nate’s very “otherness.” He had friends from college who would have been angry at this—why should Nate pacify the ignorant?
But Hector had his zoot suits, and Joey had his crosses, and Nate had the six-pointed star he wore under his shirt with his dog tags on every mission. His father may have thought Nate was weak for becoming friends with the gentiles, but Nate had to believe that faith and goodness were things to respect. Wasn’t that what his own faith taught?
He had only needed to spend a week playing cards, listening to Joey’s record player, and exchanging family stories with Hector, to know that if these men didn’t come back from their mission, or the next, or the next, he should be very sorry.
“Have we all put our letters under our pillows?” Nate asked carefully in the silence following Albert’s departure.
“Same letter as last time.” Joey grunted. “I’m starting to think it’s a good luck charm.”
“Yeah, well, as much as the captain hates me, I’m thinking I can take all the luck I can get.”
Hector grunted in return. “I’d let Joey here fly you, but he’s the only one who doesn’t scare the hell out of me at thirty thousand.” Hector shuddered. “Dios. What a man like me is doing in that much cold, I don’t even want to think about.”
Nate smiled at him, liking him very much. “Penance,” he said, eyes twinkling. “For all the bad deeds you’ve left to do.”
Hector laughed again, and Nate felt an unfortunate stir in the pit of his stomach. No. No. Not this. Not this, that had kept him aloof from his fellows through school. Not this, fear of seeing the sun on a cheekbone, filtered through someone’s eyelashes, or the shadow of a jawline, and feeling . . . this thing. The thing that poets spoke about, but not like this. Not for the girls at the dances with their shy smiles and sturdy prettiness but for the boys, milling about on the other side of the room in navy shirts and red ties, looking, by turns, bored and nervous and happy.
“I haven’t done anything truly bad yet,” Hector said, chuckling low and evil. Then he kicked Joey’s chair. “I’ve got an albatross around my neck keeping me from all the wickedness!”
Joey cast him an irritated glance. “Yeah, and it’s called a dame in the States. Now gimme two more seconds, and we can go do some PT before we go up!”
“I’ll go change,” Nate said, because his camera equipment was flawless, as it always was, and because whoever thought of doing PT before a mission had been inspired. Getting the blood flowing and the muscles pleasantly exercised took away some of the feeling of confinement in the small space of the cockpit, and some of the restlessness, as well. Not too much—not enough to tire one out—just enough to make the body easier at rest.
And it was a perfect excuse to get away from Hector and his bronzed skin and square face and the way his brown eyes seemed to invite everyone in on the joke.
Nate was buttoning up his loose khakis and lacing his softest boots when he decided to check under the pillow for his letter. Ah, yes, there it was. A good-bye to his mother, and a passing nod to his father.
His throat tightened.
Was that all he wanted to offer? His father was a reserved man, certainly—open affection had never been his way. But was Nate’s enmity an adult feeling or the leftovers of childhood resentment? Nate frowned at the envelope, made of some of the best paper stock Joey had been able to smuggle out of the officers’ supply cabinet, and wondered if he shouldn’t write another letter. Something more genial, more neutral. Something, perhaps, asking his father to believe he was worthwhile, that he was capable of worthwhile things. Something apologizing for not being Zev.
Nate’s conscience was perfectly clear about the things he’d done in the war thus far. The tally of things that bothered him or made him question his faith at this moment equaled the number of times his father had ever kissed his cheek in affection: zero.
He heard a ruckus behind him as Hector and Joey entered, pushing on each other and laughing. No time to rewrite the letter now. He shoved it back under the pillow and ran after his roommates for a round of pop-up in the field by the airstrip. None of the other pilots or officers joined them—they never had. Many of the residents were RAF, for one, and the rivalry was not always easy to transcend. For many, the mix was too different. The spic, the Mick, and the Jew—it was the beginning of a joke with no good punch line. Nate, who had never had a peer group through school, had finally managed to find one, and they were as isolated unto themselves as three as Nate ever had been as one.
But at least they were three.
Maybe next leave, Nate would go with them and let Hector try to find him a woman. Maybe those moments of thinking Hector Garcia was as beautiful as sunlight would fade.
Nate had a notion that being inside a real mosquito was probably much quieter than being inside of a de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito—wooden sides or not. The airplanes were versatile—light bombers, tactical bombers, day or night missions, and, of course, converted photo-surveillance planes. While the top sported the squadron insignia, as well as Captain Thompson’s personal insignia—a mosquito wearing a flowered dress with a purse—near the cockpit, the bottom of Miss Mossy (as the captain called her) had been painted dark gray to blend in with the nighttime cloud cover. Still, Nate had always been surprised that every plane that went flying over German airspace hadn’t been shot down.
“Stuttgart,” Nate said resignedly into the intercom as the plane took off. “Five shots at the coordinates. We have ten flares.”
“I know the mission,” Captain Thompson stated flatly. “I know the mission, I know the risks. Do you need me to hold your hand?”
“Only if it would help you feel better,” Nate replied just as flatly.
Thompson grunted, the sound translating over the intercom as a crackle of static. “Not bloody likely. Do you have anything else obvious you’d like to tell me? Do I take a right or a left to get to Germany? How’s that? Can you tell me how to fly this boat to Germany, you uppity shit?”
“I assume you point it east and go,” Nate snapped. “Wake me up when we get there.”
But Nate had no intention of sleeping.
The view through the cockpit window wasn’t ideal. Nate had thought more than once that he wished he could fly facedown on a clear platform so that he could see everything—the countryside, the farms, the smokestacks, everything. Because even with the hum of the Mosquito in his ears, when he gazed down on the sleeping mass of Europe, he knew he wasn’t seeing the complete vista, and the artist that he was hungered for the whole picture.
Bombs would be dropped on some of the towns down there; devastation would follow. What would that look like? Who would be killed? He was skilled with the specialized camera and the twenty-four-inch lens that allowed him to take shots from the plane, although the pictures he usually shot needed a room full of intelligence officers with magnifying glasses to pinpoint exactly what the photo targets were. What he was not skilled at was understanding the distance between the plane, at fifteen thousand feet, and the people on the ground. Empty space? The handbreadth of God? What made it so someone such as he could determine whether people he would never see or touch would live or die?
The silence in the plane became oppressive, and Nate scanned through his viewfinder to keep himself from sleeping in earnest. The shiny, roiling mass of the ocean sat underneath them, but the horizon of France and Germany was not that far away. Oh, hey—a town, smaller than Stuttgart, right across the black silver of the channel.
“Hello, what’s that?” Nate murmured to himself. “Do you see that?”
“I don’t see it!” Captain Thompson snapped back, but Nate was too preoccupied with what looked to be large smokestacks coming from the ground, just north of the tiny city below, to respond to his tone. That couldn’t be right, could it? There would have to be an installation underground. He couldn’t see in the dark—or without his camera.
“Captain, give us a candle drop—”
“Those are saved for the—”
“I know, but we’ve got ten. We’ll only need two. I just want one.”
“I don’t like it—we’re hours away from Stuttgart.”
“Do you see anyone, Captain? There’s no one out tonight, and that . . . that thing down there. It looks like a plant. It wasn’t there the last time we flew up this way, and it just feels wrong—it’s something important, can’t you feel it?”
“Could give a shit what you feel, you fuckin’—”
“Captain, do you really want to finish that sentence?” Nate asked, his skin chilling underneath his voluminous flight suit.
“Yes, damn it!” Thompson snapped, but he didn’t. “Candle dropping. Where do you want to go?”
“That town below us—it’s small. You see the outskirts of it to the east a little. Yes. There. Go.”
“Count off,” Thompson snarled, and Nate held his breath. There. They were close. Close. Close.
“Launch candle in ten-nine-eight-seven-six-five-four-three-two— Candle launch!”
Thompson hit something on the dash, and the flare cascaded out of the plane, falling, falling, falling before exploding harsh and white, lighting up the sky around them.
Nate was ready.
He clicked the shutter furiously, all of the settings ready for nighttime pictures. One, two, three, four—the light began to stutter—five, six.
“Shit!” Thompson cried, and Nate finished his last shot and looked around. Oh hell. Sure enough, framed against the clouds by the stuttering flare was a pair of Messerschmitts.
“Shut up and let me call for backup,” Thompson barked, and Nate heard him radio for a couple of bulldogs to come take care of the Messers on their tail.
And then Captain Thompson did what was best for everyone involved and flew that little plane as fast as it could go.
The Messerschmitts weren’t going anywhere. They stayed on their tail, firing occasionally but lacking the necessary range. Miss Mossy had a lead on them from the very beginning, and if Captain Albert knew one thing, it was how to fly quick like zoom.
“Where’s the bloody bulldogs?” Captain Thompson snarled. “What’s the good of having planes out with guns if they can’t shoot that bloody lot out of the fucking sky?”
Nate wisely didn’t answer. He changed the film in his camera in tense silence, putting the canister in the cargo pocket of his flight suit and readying the camera for Stuttgart on faith.
They didn’t make it.
The Messerschmitt Bf 110 was a superlative night fighter, and Miss Mossy, who was fitted out with cameras all around, had no guns. Her cooling system had been modified to keep the cameras and the pilots from freezing during the high-altitude missions, and when pushed too hard, her engines tended to get hot. Even while Nate despised Captain Albert, he knew the man was flying a fine line between outrunning the enemy and cooking their engines with speed.
Their one hope was that the call for backup would be answered and some dogfighters would appear over the horizon around them.
Nate kept lookout, and when the first bursts of fire spurted from the newly appeared specks behind them, acute relief almost stopped his voice.
“Brilliant. We might not die up here.”
“I am not overwhelmed with optimism,” Nate muttered, but either Thompson’s voice was lost in the engine noise or he didn’t deign to answer.
Below, the various lumps and smokestacks of Stuttgart appeared. Very few lights—all sides had learned the trick of the blackout to confuse bombing raids—but Nate had flown over and taken pictures before. He knew the shape, the basic landmarks—and although he knew their support was behind them and if they couldn’t outrun the Messerschmitts before the bulldogs got there they were in real trouble, for some reason the city gave him comfort. It wasn’t featureless, wasn’t blank. He recognized the landscape, and they weren’t lost.
And just as he figured it out, tracers of antiaircraft fire passed to his right, shattering his peace.
“They’re closing in!”
“Not them! It’s another group! Hang on and spot the bastards!”
Calmly, Nate placed his camera and lens in the case and buckled it shut, using his stomach muscles and thighs to keep his seat as the plane began a series of vicious evasive maneuvers that might have made his stomach rebel when he’d first started to fly. When the camera was safely stowed, he grabbed hold of the grips on either side and did what Captain Thompson had ordered: held on and spotted.
“Three o’clock, Cap. Two planes closing.”
“Dive roll. Don’t puke.”
“They’re following, following—lost them. Not puking.”
“Don’t be a bloody arse! Fire from six o’clock. G roll.”
Oh hell. The negative-G rolls—Captain Thompson’s specialty—were Nate’s least favorite aerobatic. He held on and didn’t puke—his first time up in the cockpit, he had puked, and had to live in it for hours. Never again.
“Nine o’clock, Cap—friendlies.”
“Fucking firing! Blast it and bugger God’s arse!”
The blasphemy didn’t faze Nate, but the fact that they were stuck between friendly fire and enemy fire without guns themselves was starting to wear on his hard-earned calm.
“Evade, Captain. Friendlies engaging!”
“I am evading, you stupid kike. Shut the fuck up and let me work!”
Oy! Now they get to the bottom of Captain Albert’s hostility? “For heaven’s sake,” Nate muttered, but Thompson let out another round of cursing, and the plane jerked, shuddered, and rolled some more. They had flown past Stuttgart now, beyond the borders, and dropped their altitude in an attempt to evade. The featureless landscape loomed below them, a black trough of rural woods.
“Holy God, there’s more!”
“You had to stop and take a fucking picture!” Thompson snarled. “We had one lousy job to do, and you had to stop and take a fucking picture, and we’ve got these buggers following us from fucking everywhere!”
“Well, that means whatever was there was pretty damned important, don’t you think?” Nate shot back, because that was the truly frightening thing. Stuttgart was a big city, pretty close to the border of France and Germany; there should be important things in Stuttgart. But that smaller city, on the tip of land across from England, the Axis shouldn’t be making anything there, should they?
“We’re not bloody likely to find out, are we?”
They executed a barrel roll evasive maneuver then, the horizon spinning dizzily and leaving Nate gasping for breath in the hopes that he wouldn’t throw up and wouldn’t pass out. Captain Thompson swore again, and the plane suddenly lurched in the middle of a barrel roll.
“We’re hit!” Thompson screamed. “We’re hit! And I’m going to die because a bloody kike Jew had to jerk off his camera!”
Later, it would occur to Nate that for all his shortcomings as a companion, Albert Thompson was an amazing pilot. The plane heaved level, which saved his life, and descended at a terrifying, dizzying speed. Too fast to jettison, even if bailing out of a Mosquito was possible at this altitude, but slow enough to keep the plane from disintegrating on impact. Maybe.
The wood under his feet trembled, and the plane skittered and rattled, shaking Nate like a yolk in its shell. Something exploded behind him, the force of air blowing Nate forward, then back, until he cracked his head on the window and the world detonated into the blackness inside his skull.
[A] great read...compelling and involving.
[Q]uite the story, very well written, well crafted, and heart wrenching. And beautiful. Very beautiful.
More powerful than any book I’ve read in four years...this story was beautifully crafted to make me feel it so powerfully. Five stars and then some. You must read this story, yes there are tears, but they are wondrous tears.
[S]o real I felt as though I was in the room with them...I highly recommend this for everyone.
This truly is a beautiful story, impeccably written, well researched historically and carries a message that is as relevant today as it ever has been.