Authors: Mardiyah A. Tarantino
at the Home Front
Mardiyah A. Tarantino
Alice at the Home Front
Copyright © 2011 by Mardiyah A. Tarantino
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This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, names, incidents, organizations, and dialogue in this novel are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
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ISBN: 978-1-4620-6800-5 (sc)
ISBN: 978-1-4620-6802-9 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-4620-6801-2 (e)
Cover drawing by the author.
Printed in the United States of America
iUniverse rev. date: 12/13/2011
My warm thanks to Dr. Helen Bailie,
To my Palm Springs Writer's Guild critique group,
and to Son Richard Tarantino whose technical
assistance was more than “swell”, it was
Alice tore off her jacket, dumped it on the bed with her books, and snatched up her binoculars. She checked to make sure the door was closed tightly behind her, wedging a notebook underneath it in case Mother tried to come in. She gave it a little kick and raced to the window. She struggled, lifting the handles evenly so the swollen wood wouldn’t get stuck halfway. If it did, she would have to close it and start over and there wasn’t any time for that. Bracing her feet against the wall, she pushed the window up and got slapped hard by the freezing nor’easter against her face.
“Shoot!” she yelled when the cold hit her, but she didn’t care. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, squinted, and adjusted the heavy binoculars as closely as she could to her eyes. She leaned way out the window and peered in all directions, scanning the puffy gray sky.
She swore she’d heard a Lockheed cruising somewhere up there, but she had to be certain. By now she’d memorized all the plane silhouettes on her cards and didn’t need to check. Sound was a different matter. You could recognize planes by the sound, but that took more practice. “I’m going to be an expert spotter, by gummy,” she told everyone who would listen. “I’m going to identify every plane that flies overhead whenever I get the chance.”
In only minutes, Alice’s fingers were stiff as twigs in a blizzard and her face felt like an ice mask, but she didn’t give in. It had to be up there. Suppose she was wrong? Could it be a Messerschmitt and not a Lockheed? An enemy plane, and she hadn’t caught it!
“A-lice!” Mother called from below. Alice could tell that kind of urgent call, like a mother cat calling her scattered kittens—not a good sign. She went to the door and opened it a crack. Mother had climbed the stairs and was standing in front of it. One touch of Alice’s cold face and she would guess what Alice had been up to. Then Mother saw the open window.
“This has got to stop, Alice. You’ll freeze at the window and risk falling out. And for what? There are adult spotters who have the proper clothing and equipment and who are authorized to do that job. It’s not your job, so let’s put an end to it once and for all. Give me those binoculars.”
Alice slouched and reluctantly handed them over. She couldn’t help it, but her eyes filled with angry tears.
“All right, then. Let the enemy come,” she shouted back. “Haven’t you heard there’s a war on? Suppose they tried to bomb all the houses in Providence? But they won’t get past
. The enemy planes won’t get past the spotters, because we’ll report them to the Civil Air Patrol, and they’ll blow those rotten bums out of the sky.”
Alice gnawed at her bottom lip. Mother had gone downstairs and hadn’t heard a word she’d said. She had no idea how badly Alice wanted to help the war effort. No idea what it meant for her to become a spotter. She walked back to the window, stood in the cold wind, letting it cool off her anger for a minute, and slammed it shut.
Then Alice remembered something. Reaching under her mattress, she pulled out a crumpled bag and shook out half a dozen chocolate chip cookies from last Thanksgiving. So what if they were stale? Nibbling away at the cookie parts, she carefully made a pile of the chocolate chips on her bedspread. Then, grinning to herself, she popped them all into her mouth at once. Mmmm. They were delicious.
* * *
The following day in the winter of 1942, Alice, late to school for the fifth time that month, hurried along the brick sidewalks. She was in a black mood after her spat with Mother and hoped she wouldn’t meet anyone she knew along the way. She brushed impatiently by the box hedges and the forged-iron gates of the colonial-style houses where, every so often, she saw a small flag with a gold star on it in the window. It hung there in memory of someone’s son or brother who had lived in that house and been recently killed in the war. Alice learned that for Americans, the Second World War had begun the year before when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Adolph Hitler invaded every country he could find on the map.
Alice always felt a little guilty walking by the flags and would turn her head the other way. Instead of being sent to the front, her uncle David had caught a cold and missed the boat. So they taught him Arabic and sent him to Cairo, Egypt. Still alive, she hoped he would stay that way—alive and happy to see her again.
Everything was different now with the war on. Everybody had to cut down on things for the war effort. All the families had ration books—you had just so many ration stamps to tear out and hand over for meat or gas or chocolate, and if you used too many and ran out, you just had to do without! There were the blackouts, when all of a sudden a siren would go off, making you deaf it screamed so loudly, and you had to run around pulling all the shades down and turning off all the lights in the house and then hide under a table in the basement until the “all clear” sounded. Sometimes it felt like it took forever.
Alice’s father had been killed in a boating accident when she was just a baby, she had been told, which left Mother a widow. Since her uncle David had left home for the war, Alice had been living in a house full of women. She didn’t count Gramp, whom she called an “old folk.” Then Ella, the cook, took off to the shipyards. Alice couldn’t see why they’d need a cook in a shipyard. Gramp usually took her side, luckily, because she quarreled constantly. She quarreled with Mother over which dress to wear, why she couldn’t read by flashlight during the blackouts, or for buying icky beef liver with the ration cards instead of something yummy like a steak. (Mother said she bought liver because the iron in it was good for you. Alice thought if that were true, it would rust in your stomach when you drank a glass of water.)
She quarreled with her cousin Suzie as well, who played with dolls instead of learning to recognize airplanes from a deck of cards, like she did. Alice wished she could be a pilot and shoot down enemy Messerschmitts or Zeros, like Van Johnson in the movies. At least she knew how to spot planes with her binoculars—the Lockheeds and the Boeings, of course, even the Messerschmitts, which hadn’t invaded the country yet but might any day now. If they did, she would call in the sighting to the Ground Patrol, and they would give her a medal.
It was boring not having anybody around but girls and women. And now she couldn’t even use her great talent as a spotter, no thanks to Mother. Every day—well, almost every day—she wrote to Uncle David, saying how much she missed him. Sometimes she fell asleep brushing away a tear.
Arriving in the front yard of the school, Alice stopped and looked around. Nobody was on the walkway to the main gate that read “Miss Whittaker’s School for Girls.”
, thought Alice, as if they weren’t just people. “School for Dumbbells,” why not? She kept chalk in the blue pencil case she carried with her to school. Crouching, she selected a stick of chalk from the case and began writing in the largest letters she could manage, stretching out her right arm and balancing herself with the left one. She drew the curve of the
down as far as her feet and followed it with a capital
Her arm tired from the strain, so her
were much smaller, with the
being smallest of all. She shuffled up a little farther to where the path met the grass and began again with a very large
until she had completed the word. The size of the letters looked better this time. She let an ant crawl over the
and onto the grass without squashing it.
Alice stood up and worked the stiffness first from her right leg, then the left, and shook the chalk off the skirt of her dark blue uniform. Then she put the chalk away and walked to her classroom without looking back.
Someone must have seen her, because after class she was called into the principal’s office. Miss Prichard told her to sit. The room was large and elegant with velvet curtains and a shiny desk carved smooth so you wouldn’t hurt yourself if you bumped into a corner of it. The upholstered chair she sat on felt hard and much too high. As always, her legs dangled several inches above the floor. She sat in the silent room, trying unsuccessfully to touch the carpet with her toes.
Miss Prichard looked at Alice through tiny eyes and thick glasses, her expression sad and disapproving. Two wisps of colorless hair sprang out from her bun.
“Alice, why did you write those words on the walkway?” she asked in a soft voice.
“I don’t know.”
“Grunty. That’s a dirty word, isn’t it?” Miss Prichard peered over her glasses.
“Do your classmates or the other girls in sixth grade write dirty words on the sidewalk?”
“Do they ever write in chalk on the school grounds?”
“No.” Alice wiped her nose on her sleeve.
Miss Prichard sighed and slouched for a second in her wing-back chair with the tiny daisies on it and then sat up straight again. She looked worried.
“You’ve never acted like this before, Alice. Can you tell me why? Is it that you don’t like our school?”
“Not really.” Looking around the room, Alice caught sight of Miss Whittaker’s portrait by the door. The gold label read as follows:
Portrait of Abigail Whittaker, Founder of Miss
Whittaker’s School for Girls
. Miss Whittaker looked back at her sternly.