A FIGHT FOR LOVE AND GLORY
By Dennis Nau
If it all started so many years ago, why did it seem like yesterday at times? There was a depression, a war, a man, life in the city, life in the suburbs, kids, grandkids, great-grandkids. Soccer, that’s all the kids talked about these days, soccer and video games.
How did all of this happen? Helena tried to relax, but hospital chairs are not comfortable. Only yesterday I was getting married, she thought to herself, four years after the war. It was a simple ceremony. You didn’t wear tuxes back then or have six story wedding cakes. A man proposed. A woman accepted. The bans were published.
It’s not like today when you live together, have a kid or two and then, to put a spark into your life, one or the other, probably the man, says maybe we should get married, honey. Likely it’s after a fight. Honest, I didn’t mean all those nasty things I said last night. I really do love you. Honest. I can prove it. I think we should get married. I’m going to give you a ring.
“Of course. I always knew that we’d get married. It was just a matter of timing.”
“Well, we should get married,” the woman answers, “But we have to wait until little Jenny is old enough to be our flower girl. I think in another month she’ll be potty trained. How about a year after next April? I’ll have to start looking for a dress. It will be a real diamond, right?”
That’s the way things are these days, Helena thought.
The nurse came in and gave Harry a shot. Harry squeezed Helena’s hand. The pain medication usually helped. He’d get a little better and maybe talk for a bit before it was time for her to leave the hospital.
Helena met Harry in 1947. She was a waitress at Chet’s and Harry first came by the café for breakfast in September. He was going to Dunwoody, studying to become a plumber via the GI Bill. The bus stop was only a block down.
“I don’t think these eggs have enough salt on them.”
“I personally put salt and pepper on every egg that has been served here for the past two years.
Every one of my customers says they’re seasoned exceptionally well. These eggs are perfect.”
“No they’re not.”
“No they’re not.”
“You have defective taste buds. These eggs are perfect.”
“No they’re not.”
“Well, you can kiss my ass. Wait, I wouldn’t want a person like you kissing anything that I own, even my rear end.”
It was love at first sight.
Harry was of good German stock, directly descended from those Teutonic warlords who kicked the Romans out of their country. Actually, directly descended from the serfs who tilled the soil, harvested the crops, and shoveled pigshit for those Teutonic warlords. He did have blond hair and stiff jaw, however, and a sense of the proper order of life’s little things which could be rather annoying.
“You usually put the napkin and the fork and the knife and spoon on the right side of the plate. It’s on the left side today.”
“You’ve got silverware. What more do you want? Pay your check and leave a decent tip.”
Helena was a petite girl of Irish descent, five foot two, five foot three maybe and yes she did have eyes of blue, had just slightly auburn hair, not auburn enough to suit her taste, but she had enough self-assurance to intimidate any man, even one of Teutonic descent.
“I spent two years in Avon with my grandmother after my mother died, and then we moved to Clear Lake,” Helena said.
“I grew up in St. Cloud. Clear Lake’s only ten miles away. I had a cousin that lived in Clear Lake, Diane Berger.”
“You’re kidding. I lived about a block away from her.”
“I don’t know how the family is doing. We haven’t heard from them in years.”
“The whole family moved to California in probably ’41. I heard Diane married a draft-dodger.”
“I’ll have to tell my mother.”
“So, how did you get to Minneapolis?”
“No, I mean, why did you come to Minneapolis?”
“Likely the same reason you did, to make a living.” The course at Dunwoody was two years long. Joe DiMaggio won the American League MVP that year; Bob Elliott the National League. The Yankees took the World Series, four games to three. In late October the temperatures plunged. Customers switched from sandwiches to hot soup, stews and beef commercials.
In the mornings, Helena would look out the window of Chet’s Cafe and watch as the bus stopped, ten minutes after seven. She’d look for Harry. He’d eventually step out. Helena would go back behind the counter, fluff up her hair and start wiping the counter clean.
“Who did you expect, Jimmy Stewart?”
“Actually, I was kind of expecting Bela Lugosi.”
A bell rang. Chet had hit that bell and it meant that someone’s food was ready, ready, as in, waitresses, get your ass in gear. You got customers.
Helena would lightly sprinkle diced onions on Harry’s eggs, just to keep him interested.
“You know how men are,” Helena told Shirley, the other waitress, who simply shook her head.
“I do. Diced onions won’t cut it, though. You know that.”
In 1949 you simply got married. The bride had a maid of honor and maybe the bride’s little sister. There was a best man and one other friend of the groom in the wedding party. A priest did the honors. You went into the basement of the church after the ceremony. All of your relatives brought their contributions, specialty dishes, casseroles, more casseroles, desserts, pickled herring, you name it. Lots of pies. Wally, Helena’s brother, walked her down the aisle since their old man had died from pneumonia in 1931.
The newly married couple was expected to leave by 10 o’clock because they had better things to do. Everyone else was expected to stay till past midnight and BS. They did.
Whiskey was kept in the church basement, in the kitchen in a cupboard above the icebox, behind the napkins.
Helena and Harry honeymooned in Montana, at Glacier National Park. They went there via a Great Northern Empire Builder passenger car. The Great Northern depot was on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, ten steps from the Mississippi. The porters were all black and very polite. They helped Harry up the steps. He was on crutches. It took a half hour before the train started to move. In the next hour they went ten miles. Stops and starts. Switch a track here, switch a track there. Once they were out of the cities, the speed accelerated.
They went through a town roughly every seven or eight miles. Whistles and more whistles. The train only slowed down and stopped at a couple of the larger towns. The corn was coming along nicely. The wheat, too. Nobody grew soybeans back then. There was a lake here, a lake there, and the couple continued on through North Dakota. Helena and Harry didn’t travel first-class to Glacier National Park, but they had a sleeper car. Drinks were served in the club car. Who would need more?
“My God,” Helena said, “I forgot one suitcase.”
“No big deal,” Harry said.
“What do you mean, no big deal?”
“What was in the suitcase?”
“Some of my clothing, my umbrella and a lot of my underwear.”
“We’re on our honeymoon. You don’t need any underwear.”
The honeymoon was in August, 1949. You wear sweaters and light jackets in August at Glacier National Park when you venture sightseeing. Everyone wears warm clothing at the park, the couple found out from the woman who checked both of them into their hotel, the Glacier Park Lodge.
“We’re almost a hundred miles above sea level. It’s cold 365 days of the year, 366 during leap year.”
Harry and Helena just stared at the woman, who grinned.
“When you talk to tourists you have to exaggerate. It’s Montana state law. If you don’t tell little lies, they’ll make you move to North Dakota.”
It rained non-stop for two days. But there was a third day.
Harry and Helena took a trip on a Glacier National Park Red Bus, a bus specifically designed for the highest level of sight-seeing comfort. White Motor Company claimed that as a touring vehicles, these “reds” were second to none. The windows were large, which made for unparalleled viewing of some of the most beautiful scenery on earth and there was no roof. You could view heaven too.
They traveled on the “Going to the Sun Road,” up and over to the right and over to the left, to the right, to the right again, down a little, and then up, all amidst trees and rocks, streams, lakes, little bridges and tourists.
“So,” Harry asked the guy in front, “Where are you from?”
“Wisconsin, and you?”
“Minnesota. Imagine that. We’re practically neighbors. Here we meet, a thousand miles away.”
Look, there’s a moose, someone said. And, look over there. Is that a mountain goat? There was some excitement and then another turn to the right and to the left.
“Were you in the war?” a gentleman in back asked the guy in front.
“Where did you serve?”
“In the Atlantic.”
“I was with the Navy, too. I served in the Pacific.”
“I’m a Marine,” Harry said, and let it go at that. Once a Marine, always a Marine.
Then there was BS and more BS, punctured every once in a while by, “My, isn’t that beautiful?”
“You think Brooklyn has a chance?”
“They do, but I hate to say it; I think the Yankees will take it again.”
A little kid in the rear of the bus started crying; two elderly couples were talking about the Canasta game they had played the previous evening. Someone yelled stop, I have to take a picture.
“Mister, I said I have to take a picture. You should stop.”
“If I stopped every time a passenger told me to stop, it would take me a week to drive this route.”
The driver turned and spit his tobacco into a paper cup.
“Ma’m,” Helena asked, “When are you due?”
“Late September. My husband and I never got a proper honeymoon because we couldn’t afford it. This will be our second child. We have a little boy who’s almost two. We just inherited some money after my grandfather died and we thought that we might not get a chance to do something like this for a long time. My mother said she would take care of our son when we were gone. Still, I worry. Our little boy can get kind of wild.”
“Oh, I’m sure your mother knows what she’s doing. She raised you, didn’t she? I think it’s like riding a bike, raising kids. You never forget how. After my mother died, I helped my grandmother take care of my little sister. I used to change her diapers. I haven’t changed a diaper in 20 years, but I could change one now, even if I was blindfolded.”
There was a clunk and a lurch on the touring car near The Bird Woman Falls. Luckily there was room to pull off the road so traffic wouldn’t be disrupted. The driver turned and said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s nothing to worry about, just a minor inconvenience. I’m sure it’s just a flat tire. We’ll be back on our journey shortly. I would ask all of you to kindly step out while I change the tire.”
Everyone got out, all seventeen passengers. “Do you need any help?” Harry asked the driver, as if he could help.
The group walked up to the viewing area to look at the falls.
“Is that a Bald Eagle?” someone asked.
Everyone shaded their eyes and looked up.
“I don’t know if it’s a Bald Eagle or a Golden Eagle, but it’s an eagle,” Harry said. The pregnant woman looked up and took a couple of deep breaths. The man from Wisconsin said he thought it was a hawk. A woman shook her head and sat down on the grass and said, I think I’m going to be sick. Must be these high altitudes.
A child started running; his mother shouted Timmy, Timmy. Little Timmy didn’t much care that his mother was shouting at him so she shouted louder. Two men were talking about trout fishing.
“Alan, get off that rock. Come back here. Hold my hand,” a woman said. Alan sat down in the grass and started crying. The guy who had sat in the furthest seat back in the bus just shook his head.
“Parents these days don’t know anything about raising kids.”
“Do you sew?” Helena asked a woman who wasn’t pregnant.
“I make wedding dresses. Do you sew?”
“I’ve been making drapes part time in my apartment for three years.”
“Making drapes is hard work.”
“Listen, honey, if you make some bad drapes, you can always make them over again. You screw up a wedding dress and the mother of the bride will try to kill you.”
“Tell me about it. A woman comes in. I measure and make a dress. Two months later she comes in three days before the wedding and she’s gained 20 pounds. She denies it, of course. It’s hard to make a dress larger. Now, if she had lost weight, I could make the dress smaller without much effort. I’ve been doing this kind of work for eight years. I was going to give it up, but, since the war ended, I’ve got all the business I can handle.
“I learned some things, though. You order a wedding dress from me, you got to stand on a scale.
You have to sign a document.”
“I hate the Yankees,” Harry said to the man from Wisconsin. “I hate them with a passion. I’m pulling for Brooklyn in the National League. I think they’ll take the National League pennant again this year. I don’t really know why I like Brooklyn. I’ve never been there. Maybe it’s because I’ve pretty much been an underdog all of my life.
“If it comes down to the Yankees versus the Dodgers in the World Series and the Dodgers win—well, I think the President of the United States should proclaim a national holiday. But I don’t have much hope.”
The pregnant woman said that she had a brother who lived in Manhattan but he hated the Yankees too.
“I hated the Yankees from the day I was born,” the guy from Wisconsin said. The driver ran over and said, “I took out the spare but it’s flat too.”
Car after car went by.
“Now, mister, what’s your name?” Helena asked their driver.
“James, isn’t there something that can be done? I’ve got a pregnant friend here.”
“There should be another touring bus along shortly. Generally, at this time of the year, I would expect one about every half hour. We’ll use their spare.”
When they started to take his blood pressure Harry woke up and actually smiled.
“The kids had to leave about an hour ago. Did you see all the cards from the grandkids?”
Harry looked at the cards on the tray in front of him and took a sip of the juice that was on that tray. Then he looked at Helena.
“I was just dreaming about our honeymoon. We went up on that road to the sun, never came down, went up and we never came down.”
It’s the medication, Helena thought.
“Honey, you’re back on the ground here with a family that loves you.”
“I know that. It’s just that I always thought that a person was only allowed so many good years in life. I thought if you got too many, you’d have to pay some back. We went up to the top of the world on our honeymoon. We really never came down, Helena.
“How did they build that road? One false move shoveling gravel up there and a guy would fall 100 miles. That’s what that woman said, a hundred miles.”
Harry smiled. He started breathing heavier and then calmed down. Helena kissed him on the cheek.
Harry closed his eyes, took a deep breath and then opened them.
“That guy was right about everything.”
“I don’t remember his name. You know, the one with Lauren Bacall.”
“We’ll all be back tomorrow, honey.”
By morning Harry was dead.
“A bus should be along shortly.” That’s what the driver said.
The man from Wisconsin asked Harry, “How’d you injure your leg?”
“Helena and I have only been married for a little over three weeks. Two days after our wedding I stepped out of the front door of the house we’re renting and reached for the newspaper. It had rained all night and the steps were slippery. I slipped on the steps, broke my leg in two places, and I was not dressed very well. It was embarrassing.
“Shit, I fought in the South Pacific and didn’t get so much as a broken toenail. I decide to read the newspaper back here and look what happens. Who knows about these things?”
A black Triumph convertible pulled up on the road and stopped. Everyone near the Bird Woman Falls shielded their eyes and looked at the road. You could just see two figures. The two figures got out of the car and started walking towards them.
The man was Humphrey Bogart; the woman Lauren Bacall.
“What do we say?” the man from Wisconsin asked.
“You say, ‘Hello, Mr. Bogart.’ Smile. Don’t ask for his autograph.”
“How do you know that, Helena?”
“Harry, Chet sold trashy Hollywood tell-all magazines. I’d read them on my break. Bogart doesn’t like people mobbing him asking for autographs.”
“This is all so beautiful,” Lauren Bacall said, with a voice that could put a man to sleep and wake him up at the same time.
The pregnant woman just stood, petrified.
Humphrey Bogart said, “I don’t believe everything I’ve been told, but they were right about this. You don’t see sights like this every day.”
The husband of the pregnant woman leaned towards Harry and whispered, she’s got legs up to her armpits.
One of the men who had been talking about canasta said, I don’t know what he sees in her. The other man who had been talking about canasta shook his head.
“Are you blind?”
The Bird Woman Falls just kept falling and the visitors just kept gazing and a second touring bus pulled alongside the Triumph and the first touring bus. Helena and Harry and James started walking up towards the road, the others too star-struck to move.
“Do you need some assistance?” the driver of the second vehicle asked James.
“We blew out a tire, and our spare tire is flat,” James said.
“They quit doing maintenance on these buses ten years ago,” said driver number two. “I’ll bet half the spare tires in the whole fleet are flat. Mine is not. I checked it just two days ago.” He got out of his vehicle.
A man in the second vehicle stepped out and asked if there was an outhouse nearby.
“You’re at Bird Woman Falls. Everyone stops here. The outhouse is over there.” He pointed. We should have brought some sandwiches, a woman said. We should have brought some beer, a man said.
Everyone started to walk back from the falls. One mother yelled at her five-year-old who ran around and around. It wasn’t Timmy. Someone pointed at a mountain goat.
Oh my God, Oh my God, the pregnant woman said.
“I’m having contractions.” She grabbed her husband and leaned on the hood of the touring car.
The man who used the outhouse ran back and said, I can help, I’m a doctor.
“It shouldn’t take more than ten minutes to change the tire,” James said.
“We’ve got to get this woman to a hospital or to the lodge as soon as possible,” said the doctor.
“We can’t wait ten minutes.”
“My vehicle is full,” said the driver of the second vehicle. “These people have paid for this ride. It’s my responsibility to take them. We’ve got no room for this woman.”
“Harry, give me your crutch.”
“I’m not giving up my seat,” the man by the door said. “You can’t make me do this.”
“I can make you do this,” Helena said, “or I’ll beat you so hard with this crutch you’ll need a crutch three times this size before you can get out of the hospital.”
“You wouldn’t do that.”
“Would I do that, Harry?”
Harry didn’t miss a beat.
“How do you think I got this broken leg?”
The man got out of the vehicle. The pregnant woman and the doctor got in. You have to get out too, ma’m, Helena said to another woman in the bus. That woman got out.
“Sorry, honey. Her husband should be with her.”
“I’m not going to be a party to this,” said the driver of the bus. Get your sorry ass out then, Helena said.
“OK James, get in. You’ll have to drive this bus.”
“I don’t know if I should do this.”
“If you’re any kind of man you’ll do this,” said Humphrey Bogart.
“I guess I got no choice.”
“You don’t, James. You’ll be a hero,” Helena said.
The red bus departed and every soul watched it leave. They watched in silence, but only for a minute and then some kid started screaming.
Humphrey Bogart smiled, winked at Helena, grabbed Lauren Bacall’s hand and turned to walk back to his car. “My God,” Lauren Bacall said. “Is he alright?”
Harry was on the ground. On only one crutch, he had lost his balance after giving Helena his other one.
“Are you alright, Harry?””
“I’m fine. It’s just a bit difficult to get up with your leg in a plaster cast.”
Helena and Lauren and Humphrey pulled Harry to his feet.
“She’s your wife?” Humphrey nodded towards Helena.
“I’ll bet you got your hands full.” He put a cigarette in his mouth and searched his pockets.
“You got a match?”
Harry had a match. It’s not every day you get to smoke a cigarette with Humphrey Bogart.
People were stranded at Bird woman Falls. The driver of the second vehicle said he was sure he was going to be fired. The man who was from Wisconsin said, you’re an idiot, workers have rights. The man who Helena bumped off the second bus said he was going to sue.
Helena and Harry were talking to Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart near the road. Bogart laughed. Bacall smiled. Bogart threw his cigarette on the ground and stomped on it. A vehicle went by and someone waved and honked a horn. Bogart took out his wallet and pulled someone’s business card out of it. He took out a pencil, scribbled on that card and handed it to Helena.
“That’s my room number. If they give you any crap about this, you have them talk to me. It’s been a pleasure meeting you two.”
As they walked back to the Triumph convertible Bogart said to Bacall, “Now, there’s a classy dame.” Helena and Harry both heard that remark. Helena looked down at the business card with the room number.
“Look, Harry. He signed his name. I got his autograph and I didn’t even have to ask for it.”
She flipped the card over.
“And look, if we are ever in Hollywood, here’s the name and phone number of a catering company which guarantees unsurpassed service.”
“Now, ma’m, we just want to know how my friend is doing. She came back earlier, might have given birth here, I don’t know.”
“Oh, that woman. That whole incident has created quite a stir. I think there’s some yelling and screaming going on right now. Someone is trying to contact a lawyer. The two drivers are meeting with their manager as we speak.”
“But the woman: how is she doing?”
“I don’t know. It turned out to be false labor. The contractions stopped. She’s supposed to be resting in her room. I do know that one woman wants to have someone arrested, said someone threatened her with a baseball bat or something like that if she didn’t get out of the car.”
“It was a crutch.”
“That’s right. How did you know that?”
“I’m the woman who made all the threats this afternoon. Surely, though, when a woman’s health and possibly her life are at stake, sacrifices sometimes have to be made.”
“Well, I think I agree. But this woman says she was kicked off the car so the pregnant woman’s husband could get back to the lodge quickly. She said it wasn’t necessary for him to get back quickly. Women give birth all the time when their husbands are not by their side and she said her time was very valuable.”
“Is this woman nuts?”
“Who knows? But she’s been talking to our general manager. She’s a Rockefeller, or says she is, so you have to pay attention.”
Helena laid a card down on the desk.
“What’s this? We don’t need caterers here.”
Helena turned over the card.
“Tell your general manager to contact me in room 315.”
“The third floor is very exclusive. You’re with Humphrey Bogart?”
“Not exactly, but we’re close friends. You screw with James, our driver, you’ll have hell to pay. There are reporters from three gossip magazines in this hotel right now. All Mr. Bogart has to do is snap his fingers and there will be front page stories in these trashy magazines about pregnant women and their husbands getting tortured in Glacier National Park.”
“Well, that’s not true.”
“Of course it’s not. You think these magazines care? They don’t, but I would bet that The National Park Service and the management of this hotel would care if there were 25 million women looking at those headlines while they waited at the grocery counter to buy a pound of hamburger.”
The man from Wisconsin whistled from the opposite side of the hotel and waved. Harry lifted up one crutch and held it overhead as a sign that he had heard the whistle. The man from Wisconsin shuffled over.
“How’s that woman doing? The one who’s pregnant.”
“Well, she hasn’t given birth, but she’s getting the best of care. Helena’s made sure of that.”
“It’s just hard to believe I saw Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. She’s beautiful but not as beautiful up close as she is in the movies.”
“Nothing is as beautiful up close as it is in the movies. Enough magnification, even Betty Grable’s legs would look like sandpaper.”
Harry waved at James, who was about to open a door, but James didn’t wave back.
The man from Wisconsin asked, “Did Lauren Bacall star with Bogart in Casablanca?”
“That was Ingrid Bergman. If Lauren Bacall had starred, you’d remember it.”
The man from Wisconsin slapped his knee, laughed and then left.
“My God,” said Harry, as he and Helena started to walk and limp away to their room, “we only talked on that road up to the sun with Humphrey Bogart for a few minutes. How could you say that about him? We’re not close friends.”
“I’m just learning to tell little lies like they do in Montana. I don’t want to be pulled out of my bed in the middle of the night by some Montana State Trooper and sent to North Dakota, especially when I’ve hardly any underwear.”
Jesus, Harry thought. What have I gotten myself into with this woman? I feel like Brooklyn must feel going up against the Yankees.
About the Author:
Dennis Nau started writing about 15 years ago. He had about a dozen short stories published in various literary magazines. His novel, “The Year God Forgot Us,” was published by North Star Press five years ago.