Penn Station Sunday, 1942
Henry walked the 40 minutes from his family’s apartment on 72nd Street, the September morning already muggy and warm, and entered at seven-thirty. Penn Station was bustling — when it was not? – but because it was Sunday it was both bustling and calm, if that were possible. The vast hall hosted hundreds of people, some sitting, most standing or walking, and a few running, yet it felt expansive.
He’d lived in New York his entire life, all nineteen years, had even worked right here for a summer, two years ago, selling magazines and newspapers, cigars and cigarettes, and gum – so many packs of gum – from Jimmy Vincenzo’s booth. That was a good job.
His next job, he wasn’t so sure about.
He was taking the 10:40 to Pittsburgh, then transferring to another line, and then another, to end up in Texas in a couple of days. Today was Sunday, yes, but tomorrow was Monday, and on Thursday he was reporting for duty at Camp Maxey, near a city called Paris, which made no sense at all. Wherever it was, he’d be lugging his bag the whole route.
Upon arrival, he’d be issued a new set of clothes, Government Issue, army green.
He bought a Daily News from someone at Jimmy’s booth, someone he’d never seen before, grabbed a coffee from another vendor, and found a bench with a direct view of the massive clock. In truth, there likely were very few seats without such a view. He had a good two plus hours to wait but he was fine with that. He believed in early arrivals: in his mind, “on time” was dangerously close to tardiness. More, he wanted a last Penn Station immersion. When would he be here again? And where else, he wondered, did he feel so at home? Certainly not “at home,” despite the best efforts of his mother, his stepfather, his little sisters. There was nothing horrible about any of those people but God that apartment was small. It was like it had hands, hands that too often clutched his neck. Yes, an exaggeration, but it was damn hard to breathe there.
And there was one more reason to be here this early, in this spot. Call it hope. Better, call it by its true name: Sheila.
Sheila, whom he’d met only two weeks ago, at a CYO dance way out in Brooklyn. Sheila, who had moved from Kentucky to New York only six months earlier. Sheila, who had kissed him that night, on the R train back to Manhattan, and who had kissed him on three separate nights since then. She did the paperwork in her uncle’s plumbing supply company in the Bronx, lived with a cousin in lower Manhattan, and took care of the cousin’s kid pretty much every hour she wasn’t on the job. Her going to that particular dance had been such a fluke – such an Act of God or something, given the odds – in fact, it was her first dance since leaving Louisville. And he had been there, too, also almost completely by chance. He’d gone with two buddies, a spur of the moment decision by the three of them, each a recent high school graduate: “Class of ’42, that’s who!”
Since the June ceremony, the three had often found themselves sitting and wondering what to do next. Classes were boring, and pointless, many of them, but you knew where you were supposed to be, knew what you were supposed to do. He guessed that he’d again soon be told what to do, twenty-four hours a day. The other two guys were shipping out next week, Merchant Marine.
The kisses on the R Train. The kisses the following Tuesday, and Sunday, and Tuesday of this week. And today was Sunday. She knew he was leaving – he’d told her that first night, a few minutes before they reached Canal Street, her stop. He couldn’t not tell her. The look on her face the moment he told her, whatever else happened in his life, that look he would never forget.
He sipped his coffee, regretting the lack of cream. He opened the paper to the sports section. The Yanks lost yesterday, but he knew that, and they’d already locked up the pennant. The Series was starting on Wednesday. He closed the paper, set it beside him, stood, stretched, and sat down again.
A group of fifteen or twenty people crossed in front of him, all following a guy holding a sign above his head, a sign that said something Henry had missed, going to his left, probably to the stairs to the next level.
He got up, walked ten steps to the trash bin, and tossed his empty cup. He returned, opened the paper to the crossword, pulled a pen from his pocket, stared at the puzzle for a moment, but did not begin. He closed his eyes, pen still in hand.
When he opened them, Sheila was standing five feet away, wearing the same green dress she’d worn in Brooklyn. Little white flowers danced on the shoulders. She was smiling. He didn’t know if his own face was smiling or crying or both.
And then he saw, on the scuffed floor beside her, amid cigarette butts and crumpled napkins, the most beautiful sight of his life, a red and black Samsonite suitcase.