Anya Sophia Ritter, nee Rommel, closed her book and held it tight to her bosom while she tried to assimilate the courage it offered. Living in the sweltering attic room, working at the rations factory, and missing her men defined her. The room in her married son’s house felt as if it were on the Flying Dutchman, forever sailing alone through Hell, with soup and a sandwich at 6:00 each night. Her husband, dead two years now, and her son facing Hitler somewhere in Europe, came to her in dreams in a sad, detached and mournful way. No touch, no smiles.
Mike had invited her to share his and MaryAnn’s home and had tried to make her feel welcome. She had made one dinner that she’d thought turned out so well. MaryAnn then informed her that the kitchen would be off-limits, that she had to manage her coupons. After Mike joined the Great War effort, MaryAnn made it clear that Anya should become invisible. The blow up with bathtub timing made Anya acquiesce. She found out about Mike when coming home from work; she saw the open Missing in Action letter on the side table.
She put the precious book on her nightstand. This Saturday she would become visible.
“MaryAnn, may I speak mit you?”
The pretty brunette lowered the newspaper and responded with a smirk. “What about? If it’s about the sandwiches, I get what they give me.” She folded the paper back to show Anya the illustrated coverage of Rommel’s newest campaign. “So out with it, I’m busy.”
Anya remained standing. “Will you go to church with me tomorrow morning?”
“Uh, no.” She buried her face in the newspaper again.
“The name Rommel is not so uncommon, I know Mike told you our branch of that line broke away generations ago.”
“If you want to keep living here, leave me alone and quit yapping about church. I’ll call them to take you to one of those camps.”
“MaryAnn, I ask so little of you.”
“You live in my house, eat my food, and intrude in my life. You ask a great deal of me.” She thrust the paper down and scowled at Anya. “Why don’t you go on back to Germany?”
“I am American, I was born in Chicago.”
MaryAnn shrugged. “I know, Mike told me his grandpa came over with the circus. Look, I’m torn up over all this news about the war getting worse and worse with no word on where Mike is. I don’t mean to be such a bitch.” She folded the paper properly and laid it on the side table. “Have a seat. You were born in Chicago yet you talk like a Kraut.”
Anya closed her eyes and asked her watching angels for aid; her gut hurt, the jabs hurt. She sat. “Ja, yes, that was Papa and he flew on the trapeze.”
“So go live with those people. If the neighbors found out your name was Rommel, they’d torch the house.”
“I left there because the man mit the little horses was trying to be nasty with me. I run away mit der truck driver who said he takes me to a German family he knew in Louisville, in Germantown. Papa found him as we arrived there and shot him mit der shotgun, I mean to say ‘with the shotgun’. Mama would never see me again as I was nothing but a trouble maker. I am no longer part of my own family.” She tried to visualize angels but only recalled the stone angels leaning from a great cathedral in Chicago. Were Catholic angels as evil as the Catholics inside the beautiful church?
MaryAnn reached for a peppermint and started sucking on it. “If you’re so American, why don’t you talk like one?”
Anya nodded and kept her gaze on the glass ashtray on the coffee table. “My family I grew in spoke German and so did he family I stayed with after, in Germantown. I learned English on my own so I could work and be Americanish. I understand it is difficult to lose the accent you had as a child. I read that.”
“You’ve lived here the whole year since Mike and I were married and he went off to fight in that war.” She lit a cigarette and grabbed the ashtray. “You never said two words to me, like I didn’t exist. Now you’re spilling your life story. Why is that?”
She watched the ashtray take a small gray chunk from the cigarette. “I knew you think bad of me from the dinner and the bath and other times. I did not wish to bother you. Now is only us two and we both miss Mike and wish him to return. Can we not miss him together? Can you not give me an opportunity?”
“I guess so, for Mike’s sake.” She mashed the cigarette into the ashtray and put it back in the coffee table. “You want something to drink? There’s some iced tea in the fridge.”
“Ja, yes, I get it.”
“Oh no, it’s my kitchen and I’ll get it.”
They moved to the narrow front porch and settled into the painted metal chairs in the shade of an ash tree. Anya thanked the angels for keeping the cars and trucks away from the street, no shouting children, no distractions. The next part would be difficult enough without a musical van rolling by selling popsicles.
“I would like to tell you of how I met Mike’s father, Freddy. He was Manfred, but always went with Freddy. I move to Louisville as I said and after school, I got a job at the hemp works. Freddy worked as a buyer for oil from the seeds. He was so hublisch, handsome. Our first date we walk along the Ohio River and he ask me to marry at the water plant. I agree and we start our house making just in time for the Bismarck to start that first big war. Manfred spoke very good English and Ritter is not so German sounding to keep him from volunteering for the Navy, you know, Tex Ritter the singer is loved.”
Her angels insisted she go on. She remembered her tea and had a long drink. “”Ja, Freddy was good to volunteer soon because after the Navy was full and the Army ate soldiers like strudel.”
MaryAnn gripped a rusted chair arm. “What?”
That drew Anya’s eyes. The alarm on he daughter-in-law’s face slapped her.
“Ach, dear, I am sorry, Army is better now, they have good machines and leaders like MacArthur and Eisenhower. Please forgive me?”
MaryAnn settled back down and tried to brush the flaked paint from her hand without spilling any tea.
Having MaryAnn’s attention diverted helped Anya’s struggle to keep going. “Freddy came home, right? Yes, Freddy came home and we make our house. Soon comes Sophie, our little girl.”
After a minute, MaryAnn stated,” I never heard Mike had a sister.”
“Sophie died of leukemia so young, no school yet. When we find she has this, I want no more kinderen, children, but it is too late. We bring baby Michael to the funeral to say goodbye to the sister he never knew.” She absently swallowed more tea and leaned back to study the marigolds along the front steps.
“Hey, I’m sorry I brought that up, really.”
The sympathy in the girl’s voice vied with the flowers, but she couldn’t look away from the red and yellow frills.
In a kinder voice, MaryAnn asked, “Who does Mike take after?”
“Does he look like you family or Freddy’s?”
“Ach, he is so like Freddy, so handsome and kind.” The too-familiar memory of his placid, non-Freddy face in the casket assaulted her. “When Freddy was killed in the train accident, it was Mike who pulled me to the church. I go once and was so mad at God, I go no more.”
“Now you want to go again.”
“Yes. You see Mike said it was a sin to be mad at God and worse bad things would happen.”
“So you believe Mike will come back if you go to church?”
“No, I know it is not so simple. I have been reading the bible, though. The words of Jesus touch my cold heart. The angels, they kneel at his feet.”
MaryAnn finished her tea and placed the glass on the round, lacy metal table between the chairs. “Well, the closest church is that Apostolic one, the holy rollers. That Independent Baptist Church across the highway isn’t too far to walk and is probably more your speed. Instead of going east to work, go west on Orchard Street three blocks and you’ll see it across the highway from the car lot.”
“Bitte, please, will you not go with me?”
“Why would I need to go? It isn’t that far and Sunday morning there isn’t much traffic on the highway.”
The marigolds were wilting in the hot sun, not enough rain for them. Everything gets dirty, wilts, dies. She placed her tea glass on the little table. “Yes, okay, it was a silly idea anyway. I saw the posting at work for night shifts. It is for packing the rations into boxes which is not much different than I do now. As this will have me gone all meal times, you will not need to make the sandwiches for me. Also, I can live in the hostel nearer to work, if I may leave a few items here.” She stood, wanting to leave today, this hour, now. “You have been so kind and I will miss you.”
MaryAnn frowned with a studious look upon her face. She looked up at Anya and started to wag a finger at her, but clasped her hands again with her eyes darting right and left. All at once, her face lightened. She stood and reached across the little table to tentatively grasp Anya’s fingers. “Don’t do that. I’ll go to church with you.”