It was sweltering in the school’s narrow cloak room, bodies pressed close, the smell of old socks and potato soup. Rationing had just begun, and mothers, old men, and lost-looking youth stood front to back, their baskets and satchels wedged against buttocks. A bare light bulb lit the constrained faces when Joli LeFevre, sixteen, squeezed and tore her way to the front of the line.
“Joli! Here! Up here!” her mother, the school’s custodian, called to her. “Here! Here!” she called, stretching her arms through the crowd. “I’ve saved a place for you. She’s my daughter,” she said in response to the grumbling crowd. “My boy’s in the army, very important,” she whispered to the angry woman behind her.
Joli tore her sleeve on an old man’s belt buckle but managed to ease into the awkward position beside her mother.
“Fredrick’s as good as serving,” her mother said, her voice lowered, lisping. “He got his papers didn’t he?”
“But he didn’t sign…”
“Do you think the army cares for chicken scratch on paper? Good as serving,” and she fell into a half slumber as she rocked on her heels.
“Next!” cried a short man at a paper strewn table, his blue blazer stretched across his generous middle. The crowd inched forward.
“Besides, Joli, he’s a peace boy, always has been. Remember him with those kittens he found on the fire escape. Nursed them himself, found homes for them, and cried when I wouldn’t let him keep one.”
“But the war, Mama…”
“This,” she said firmly, “is our war,” and she pointed to the sweaty faces behind her.
“Next!” the man in the blue blazer cried.
“You can’t keep him hidden under your skirt forever,” Joli whispered, taking her mother by the elbow and motioning her to the table.
“Name goes right there,” the man said, his thumb pressed against the paper as if he were afraid the big, glaring woman might take off with it.
“Joli?” she said, pulling the paper from under his thumb and handing it to Joli.
“Right there,” the man said, pointing to paper and holding out a pen.
“You put it down, Joli. You have those lovely curlicues.”
“Madame, are you the head of the household?
“Then you need to fill it out. One per household. That’s the rule.”
Then she stared at the wall above the man’s head and said, “She’s my eyes and ears. I don’t read or write.”
“Oh,” then turning to Joli, “Write your mother’s full name. Marta Hoffman LeFevre,” he recited. There was an audible gasp and the name Hoffman and German was bandied about in conversation behind her. “Spouse’s name?”
“Gone,” Marta said.
“Very well then,” he said buttoning his jacket though his face was beaded with sweat. “Number of children?”
“Mama,” Joli said warningly and tugged at her skirt.
“Well, we can’t count Hans,” and she looked back at the crowd. “He’s your cousin and will be going home to Greta at the end of the month. She’ll get her own book. Isn’t that right?”
“You’ll describe them then, your five children,” he spat, spittle settling on Marta’s hands.
“There’s Joli, blonde and blue-eyed. Takes after me. Fredrick, dark, like his father, brown-eyed, Christine, blonde, blue-eyed, Martin, brown-haired, brown-eyed, and Sylvie.”
Joli gasped, “Mama!”
“Am I forgetting to say that Sylvie is the beauty of the bunch, slim, blonde, blue-eyed?”
Joli’s hands worked themselves against her mother’s skirt.
“Can you write your name here?”
She took the pen with a flourish, waved it in the air and settled it on the paper as if she had been signing documents all her life.
“There,” she said and fixed her gaze on the man. “Is that it?” she said and he nodded, handing her the book of ration stamps. She turned to leave and he brought her back with his thick, clenched voice.
“Ma’am, Mrs. LeFevre? This is for your use only, if you’re found selling or using these coupons improperly, I will warn you there is a stiff fine. A very stiff fine.”
“I understand perfectly,” she said, baring the black hole that had been her front teeth, and she gave the same smile to the crowd who refused to budge before her. They exited the cloak room, hugging the wall. An older man, wizened, called after her in whisper, “Swine.” Once outside in the May sunshine, they drank in great gulps of air and loosened their clothes.
“Joli, you take this,” and she thrust the ration book into the girl’s hands. “Go to Sampson’s Grocery and buy up as much sugar as they’ll let you have. I’ve got a yen for apple strudel. Apples are still plentiful. Girl, don’t look at me like that. Mr. Sampson knows you. It’ll be fine. I’ve still got to swab the toilets. You don’t want me to lose my job, do you? Now run. Run.”
At the moment Joli turned, the sugar book clutched in her sweaty hands, her mother called out to her, her voice plaintive, “He’s not a coward. I told him. I told him if he went, I couldn’t look him in the eye again, couldn’t stand the notion he might have killed his own kin. I told him.”
Joli ran, the sugar book flapping in the scanty breeze.
About the author:
Nancy Demme, a retired Children’s Librarian, has facilitated creative writing groups for adults, teens and adolescents for 25 years. She has been published in US1, Confrontations (LIU’s literary journal), Kelsey Review and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. She is an active member in the Garden State Storyteller’s League and recently performed an ensemble piece at the Ellarslie Museum in Trenton. She currently teaches Writing in English to ESOL students.