Blue Skies TomorrowBy: Sarah Sundin
Wednesday, March 1, 1944
Helen Carlisle strolled up G Street, careful to keep a pained expression. Some days the performance of grief was easier than others, but it was always necessary for her son’s sake.
She shifted two-year-old Jay-Jay higher on her hip and inhaled the Delta breeze, flowing fresh from the San Francisco Bay into the Sacramento River Delta, rain-scrubbed and scented by new grass on the hills.
With a bump of her hip, Helen opened the door of Della’s Dress Shop and set her notebooks on the table by the door.
From a picture frame on the table, Jim Carlisle smiled up at her—long, lean, and handsome in his Navy blues. The hometown hero. Was he wearing that uniform when a Japanese torpedo slammed into his destroyer off Guadalcanal?
She pressed her fingers to her lips and then to the cold glass over Jim’s cold face. But a scan of the shop revealed no sign of her in-laws. Footsteps came from the back room, and the curtain swished open, so Helen repeated the performance, laid another kiss on the portrait, and lifted it for her son. “Give Daddy a kiss.”
Jay-Jay mashed his palm over his mouth, making a crunching sound, and passed the kiss to the father he couldn’t remember.
A crunching sound? Jay-Jay’s cheeks stretched rounder than usual. “Sweetie, what do you have in your mouth?”
He shook his blond curls, his mouth clamped shut.
“Let Mama see.” Helen dropped to her knees, pinned the boy on her lap, and pried open his mouth. He howled and flapped his arms at her.
“Please, sweetie?” Nausea billowed through her. Chunks of slimy gray shell lay in her son’s mouth. She’d set him down for a minute, only a minute while she hung the thermometer poster in the window of the Red Cross Branch Office to monitor the War Fund Campaign.
“What are you doing to my grandson?” Della Carlisle’s voice fluttered down in waves.
“He—he has a snail in his mouth.” Helen whipped a handkerchief from her dress pocket and scooped out the mess, dodging sharp white teeth.
“A snail? Heavens above. Didn’t your mommy feed you lunch?”
“Of course, I did. A deviled ham sandwich, an apple, milk.”
Jay-Jay squirmed out of her arms. “Gamma!”
Mrs. Carlisle swept him up. “Let’s see if Grandma has something that little boys like to eat.”
Helen winced and got to her feet. Mrs. Carlisle seemed to be present for any mistake on her part. She wadded up the handkerchief. She’d rinse it out after her shift.
“Oh ho, here’s my boy.” James Carlisle strode in from the stockroom with the same powerful gait his son used to have. In one fluid motion, he snatched Jay-Jay from Mrs. Carlisle’s arms and swung him around for a piggyback ride. “ ‘Snips and snails and puppy-dog tails,’ don’t you know? It’s good for him. Make a man of him.”
Mrs. Carlisle eased back into the stockroom.
Jay-Jay squealed as his grandfather galloped and whinnied around a dress rack.
Helen smiled at the affection between the man and his namesake. “Mrs. Carlisle can go home for lunch now. I’ll be here until one.”
The notebooks by the door sang out her lovely plans. “I can only stay an hour. I need to discuss the spring tea with Mrs. Novak, deposit Red Cross funds, take knitting patterns to Dorothy so she can make socks for soldiers, the Junior Red Cross meeting at 3:30—”
He laughed. “And I have to collect rent from my tenants and attend the bank board of directors’ meeting. Three o’clock. Family first.” He let out a horsy snort and trotted off.
How could she complain? Her father-in-law owned her house and let her live there rent free in exchange for a few hours at the store each week. Besides, she had a cute wardrobe at a deep discount. She opened the cash register and rearranged her schedule in her head. This evening she could see Dorothy and Mrs. Novak. The plans for the tea couldn’t wait.
Jay-Jay’s curls bounced as his grandfather galloped around, just as they bounced when he danced with Helen. Tonight she and Jay-Jay wouldn’t have time to dance or read stories or cuddle for bedtime prayers.
A sigh drained from her chest. Why did everything good get taken from her life?
“Mama, look.” Jay-Jay’s peals of laughter blended with the bells on the front door.
“I thought I saw you come in, Helen.” Victor Llewellyn walked to the counter with his clipped stride, although the Navy had driven the stoop from his shoulders, thank goodness.
“Hi, Vic. I heard you were in town.” She stretched her hands over the counter.
He took them, leaned forward, and kissed her on the cheek. “How’s my future wife?”
“I wouldn’t know. Haven’t met her.” Oh dear. Why did he have to start this again? She didn’t want a repeat of his peevish behavior in high school. “I heard the Navy sent you to Port Chicago.”
“The Judge Advocate’s office made me a liaison officer. Not much of a position, but a start.”
“They load ammunition there, right?”
“Right. My job is to iron out tension. All the men are colored and all the officers are white. I’ve received lots of justifiable complaints—lack of recreation, poor working conditions, inappropriate placement. They have a college grad loading ammo. If he were white, he’d be an officer. That’s the Navy for you.”