Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Normandie

The Normandie, by Reginald Marsh

We saw the S. S. Normandie as she arrived once. This was before the war. Stella and I had a few hours to kill before we had to start working at the club and we loved the harbor anyway, all that fresh air and sun was such a difference from the nightlife. It made us feel as young as we were, which most of the time, we didn’t. Lucky was meeting us there too, which was a plus, because say what you will about his mob connections, he knew how to treat a lady right. It was Lucky who knew all about that ship. He caught up with us just as it was sailing into the harbor and it was thrilling, let me tell you. Lucky said it was the biggest, fastest passenger ship in the world, and he was the kind of guy who knew about those things. He angled some way to get us all aboard, and I thought it was probably the fanciest boat that ever set sail and certainly the fanciest tub I’d ever been in. Lucky told us it was Art Deco. All I thought was, Only the French would ever think to do up a boat like this.

Lucky took a lot of pictures of us aboard it and then put an arm around each of us and told us he would take us to Europe on it one day. We knew it was just a line, but it was a good kind of line, the kind of line a girl can build a dream or two on when she’s working late hours in a smoke-filled room and the gents aren’t of the nicest quality and besides, her feet are killing her.

Then Lucky went to prison and the war broke out. I guess everyone’s luck runs out sometime.

Not too long after Lucky went inside, the Normandie arrived again—not on any luxury cruise this time, but just escaping from the Nazis. We had the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth there too for awhile, all lined up in a row, like boats in a tub. Then France fell and we seized the Normandie to use against the Nazis. The Navy rechristened it the U.S.S. Lafayette, and began turning it into a troopship.

I visited Lucky in prison a few times and once he asked me whether I still had the pictures of that day on the pier. I was surprised he was so sentimental, but then he was Italian and I guess they are--probably too much opera in their childhood. Anyway, I brought them to him and he kept them.  

Stella and I still liked to go to the harbor. There were lots of people, and it was cheap entertainment.  But one afternoon at about two o’clock a wave of panic came toward us through the crowd, and that’s how we learned that the Normandie was burning.

Like everyone else, we went to watch it burn.

It took twelve hours for the whole show to end. Stell and I had to go back to work long before the ship listed over to one side and gave up the fight. But the next day we joined the throngs who walked past the ruined hulk that it had become. It was like going to the funeral of the president. All around us, there was talk of Germans. Everyone knew they were up in Germantown or right there in our very midst, planning acts of sabotage.

Stella nudged me and off to the right who do I see but Tony Anastasio. Tough Tony, they called him. His brother was Albert Anastasia, another mobster friend of Lucky’s, and Tony had the International Longshoreman’s Association about sewn up himself. He was smoking a cigarette and leaning on a railing, looking out at the ship. He turned to us blankly, then recognized us—we knew him through Lucky and through the club—and offered us each a cigarette.

“Does Lucky know about the Normandie?” I asked. I had a feeling it would upset him, so I wasn’t sure if it would be better for him to know or not.

“He knows,” Tony said. He seemed a little glum. “So what do you gals make of it all?”

“Germans!” we said in unison. We were sure of this. Everybody said so. The devils had slit the fire hoses. They had put gasoline into the water sprinklers. No deed was too dastardly for those Gerries .

He smiled, and looked out over the water.

“What, don’t you?” Stell asked. She was incredulous. To us it was all as plain as the rather prominent nose on Tough Tony’s face.

 “Just an accident, girls. Don’t worry those pretty heads about the Gerries.”

We must have looked skeptical.

“The guys tell me a spark caught the life jackets and they went up—whoosh! All filled with kapok. Ever heard of it?”

We shook our heads.

“Highly flammable.” He looked at his watch.“ Hey, I gotta be somewhere. See you gals at the club tonight? I certainly do hope so.” He winked, and was gone.

I watched him off, wondering how he knew so damn much about kapok.

It turned out there was no German sabotage. The fire had been started by a welding torch, just like Tony said. It also turned out that Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano was moved from a maximum to a minimum security prison shortly thereafter, in exchange for a few favors having to do with protecting the harbor from sabotage. Maybe they really did prevent a few German dirty tricks. Or maybe the only ‘sabotage’ Lucky kept us safe from was his own.

Lucky’s sentence was commuted and he was deported to Italy after the war, where he fell for a dancer, who was younger than we were by then. So we never did get our cruise, but maybe that was for the best.

I still wish I had those pictures I gave him. But then, Lucky probably had other uses for them all along.

This story was written for Patti Abbot's flash fiction challenge. She offered to pay five dollars to Union Settlement for every story written by October 18th. So even if the story is rotten it's still a good thing to have tried. I found the Marsh painting first and the story of the Normandie later. What really happened to it is still a subject of contention.

Union Settlement
237 East 104th Street
New York, NY 10029-5499

No comments:

Post a Comment