He hears their voices echo into the hall, after the second night. Repeating his lines to each other and laughing. Eva, Gertrude, Ellie, Viola. Pearl, a pixyish blond who’s saving for school and going to be the first in her family to go. Inez, known to the producers as Agnes, pale-skinned and doing everything she can to hide her status as an immigrant’s daughter (a steel worker, at a mill in Pennsylvania). Emily, Sophie, Cora, Maxine: Steve can picture their faces as each one speaks.
Gert and Viola, stitched at the hip, do it one after the other. They feign deep voices, interrupting themselves with giggles. “Not all of us can storm a beach, but there’s still a way all of us can fight!”
Steve imagines them striking a pose together. He leans against the thin wall.
“Series E defense bonds, each one a bullet in the barrel of your best guy’s gun!”
“A few more rounds of that and I’ll get my best guy to shoot me,” Eva says. She showed him around backstage and left him in the wrong dressing room, he hoped by mistake.
“Did you see him with that baby? I thought he was gonna drop it on its head.” Sophie. He hadn’t talked to her yet.
Steve almost misses Pearl’s voice, as loud as the others are whooping. It sounds like the head cold she tried to fight off is winning.
“Oh, stop, stop. He’s a sweetie. It’s not his fault if the script is for the birds.”
“Maybe it would sound better if they got a parrot!”
He turns away from the dressing rooms and heads for the lockers, hunting out Pearl’s and leaving a note along with the two lemons and tiny pot of honey he managed to snag from the grocer before they ran out. He got some very dirty looks, grabbing that honey.
The note doesn’t say much.
Thanks. Hope you feel better.
The next morning, she sits with him in the mess and shares her tea. It’s from her mother’s garden, she says, and just the thing after a bad day.
He’s teaching Inez about action lines in his sketchbook when Ellie runs in the back doors. They’re at the tiny venue in Buffalo, and half their luggage is three hours away by train, along with half their crew.
She’s still in her civvies - that’s what the girls call them, jokingly, and Steve finds he has more in common with the “Star Spangled Singers” than the producers. Ellie’s also in tears. “My skirt got stuck in my bag’s zipper,” she tells Inez. “It’s torn clear up the back and I don’t have a spare.”
“Let me see,” says Steve.
Both girls give him a scandalized look, and it takes him a second to realize why. He makes a strangled sound that tries not to be amused. “I mean let me see the skirt. Izzy, can you find out if Cora’s got that sewing kit around?”
Ellie looks at him like he’s suggesting Inez go spy for the Nazis. “What are you gonna do?”
“My mother didn’t have a girl,” he says. “She had to teach somebody how to be useful.”
Inez returns with the sewing kit and a skeptical Cora. Ellie returns with her skirt. She hovers, remarking on how he’ll have to replace it if he ruins it, how it had better not split again while they’re on stage. Inez and Cora have to get ready, and finally Ellie leaves too, to do her hair and makeup and put on as much of her costume as she has.
He leaves the fixed skirt hanging on the back of a chair in front of the mirror marked with Ellie’s name, then goes to get into costume himself.
Afterwards she finds him, kisses him on both cheeks, and drags him straight into the girls’ dressing room. Those present scream, even though they’re all clothed. Steve turns around and tries to walk out, but Inez seizes one arm and Ellie drags him back by the other.
“Not a chance, Cap,” Ellie says. “Tonight you’re coming out with us and the crew, and your drinks are on me.”
By the end of the night, they’re all calling him Cap, and he has three requests for stitching on civvies.
In San Francisco, he breaks Hitler’s nose.
It’s a disastrous end to a disastrous show, and the girls all depart with Seymour. Red-haired Gertrude takes the wheel of the bus on the drive to the hospital - Seymour’s offstage job. She’s certified for it, she says, to Viola’s surprise. Got her license so she could drive ambulances overseas, but stayed in the states when her dad took sick.
Steve has to linger at the theater and do the autographing and the photography sessions, and by the time he’s shrugging on a jacket to cover his costume, the rest of them stump back in. Seymour’s appliqué mustache is stuck to his chin, and his face is purple and layered in bandages.
“Sy, I’m so sorry-”
“Shucks, Cap, it’s an honor to be socked by America’s golden boy.” He grins at Steve.
“I’m not sorry any more,” Steve says.
“The understudy’s in luck. No stage work for me for at least a month.” Seymour touches his bandages and Viola slaps his hand. “Not ’til my face stops looking like a zeppelin. And I’m not supposed to blow my nose or let myself sneeze.”
“No tickling him, girls,” Gert says. She looks worried. “And no telling the Toad that I can drive the bus.”
The Toad, Senator Brandt’s aide, would fire Seymour in a heartbeat if he knew they had another driver on hand. They all solemnly swear, and Steve does too, honored to be included in the promise.
In the end it doesn’t matter: somehow the Toad finds out anyway.
The third night in San Francisco, Steve discovers Viola with her arms around Gertrude’s shoulders as the latter sobs into her friend’s shirt.
“He’ll get work,” Viola says. “Don’t you worry. Our Seymour will be all right.”
Steve leaves them and hunts through the theater for the round-faced man who promised him a platoon and a posting overseas. When he finds the office the Toad took for his own, he knocks hard enough to dent the door.
Later, in the ladies’ dressing room, Steve sits in a corner darning a pair of Maxine’s socks as Seymour comes in, dazed. “He said there was a mix-up,” Seymour says. “That he put in for a raise, not a dismissal. That the dangers of the job merit it.”
He grins at Steve, but he still looks dizzy.
Gert and Viola stare at the Captain. The rest of the women see and turn to watch him as well. Maxine is the closest. She pokes him in the heel with her toes.
He goes on stitching, only looking up when the last knot is set.
He holds his work up, white summer socks that draw up past the calf, flowers patterned into the stitching. “How’s this, Max? I haven’t done socks in a while.”
The Star Spangled Singers aren’t invited to political galas, though the waitresses circling the room with practiced smiles and real nylon stockings all wear a variation on the Singers’ uniforms. Steve gets to wear a soldier’s dress uniform, at least, instead of his stage shorts and tights. It’s hard to be confident in conversation while wearing something better suited to a children’s playground. As it is, he’s still stiff, biting his tongue in conversation with rich young men who ask him to share the joke of escaping enlistment or conscription, fumbling for what to say to strange women who eye him with unfamiliar expectations.
One of the waitresses circles around regularly, offering expensive hors d'oeuvres that turn his stomach with their extravagance. He can’t tell if she’s flirting - he doesn’t have much to compare it to. It’s all How you holding up, sugar? and Can I get you anything?
The last time the waitress comes around he’s tempted to ask her if she’s making a pass after all, but that’s when the blonde in the tight blue dress eases up to his side and whispers, “I can’t hardly believe you’re alone.”
Her dress is slit up the front to open like a fan when she walks. Her lips are pink, her eyelids gold, and there’s a year’s rent in gems around her neck. Steve can’t help thinking that she’s everything he doesn’t go for, before he remembers that he doesn’t go for much.
The blonde eyes his waitress friend and flicks her fingers at the woman. “Get lost, dolly.”
The waitress stays long enough to let the new woman know she’s not leaving on command. Then she disappears into the crowd like a magician behind a curtain. The blonde turns so she’s face-to-face with Steve, almost nose-to-nose, her skirts swirling as she moves and all but forcing anyone nearby to look at her legs underneath. He keeps his focus applied firmly to her face, determined not to show the irritation he feels. He knows by now what manipulation looks like.
“The Man with a Plan,” she says, and he’s heard that one so many times he does give a little exhale of impatience. That seems to amuse her, which doesn’t make him feel better.
“I’m Sidney Harper, and you look like you need relaxing.”
“Thank you ma’am,” he says, “but I’m all right.”
“Sidney. Sid. Please.”
“Of course, ma’am.”
He thinks he sees irritation in her eyes. “Tell me, captain, what do you think of events like these? All this glam when our boys are dying over there?”
She’s trying to shock him, maybe. Certainly trying to get him to say something unwise. He opens his mouth to ask how many bonds her necklace would buy, but Gert swings up around his left and drapes her arm over his shoulders. Viola flanks him on the right and wraps both hands around his waist.
“What’s the matter, honey?” Gert says.
Viola finishes the line: “This girl bothering you?”
Inez is the last one to fall into line, standing just behind Gert. She’s in her Saturday night best, with her stockings sketched on and little pearl earrings glinting at her earlobes. She smiles at Steve, shy, and says, “That waitress is a friend of my sister’s. I asked her to look in on you.”
The blonde, it turns out, is a reporter using the name of a politician’s wife. She’s escorted from the room, the Star Spangled Singers thanked, and the three women have very little trouble charming the rest of the men and women there into opening their wallets for the show.
The next gala, Steve has almost twenty personal guests, and not even the Toad objects.
None of them sleep on the flight. The engines roar and their seats rattle and Pearl is in tears before they’re a hundred feet off the ground. Gert distracts her with a game of pinochle. Every thump of turbulence makes Ellie scream, until Viola gives her something from a little pill box that knocks her out entirely. Steve tries to sketch in his journal until a particularly severe round of bumps makes him break his pencil, bite his tongue, and drag lines up and down an image of Emily’s face.
She looks over his shoulder and tugs his ears. “I’m a goddamned Picasso!”
The closer they get to London, the quieter everyone is. Eventually the only sounds that aren’t from the plane and the pilots are from Ellie, snoring and mumbling under Viola’s jacket. It’s in all of their eyes, what’s on all of their minds: What if one stray plane out here finds us, what if we’re taken by friendly fire from below. It’s dark over the English countryside, and they’re just another flying shape in the night. Every bang becomes artillery. Every little drop the start of a tailspin.
Steve is the one who starts humming The Star Spangled Man with a Plan. Gert groans at the top of her lungs and Pearl sings until her voice stops shaking. By the time they start their descent toward the RAF station at Gatwick, even Ellie is awake enough to join in the bastardized version of the song that Sophie and Maxine made up one dreary Seattle evening. It involves stitching socks and breaking Hitler’s nose and, on the whole, is the better version in Steve’s opinion.
The base doesn’t welcome them. It gets them inside, out of the rain, and gets their plane out of the way so an incoming group of nightflyers can hammer down along the tarmac and taxi in to their hangars for repair.
The men who disembark are faded or flushed. Their hands tremor from the high, cold sky and adrenaline. One pilot has blood tacking his hair down against the side of his head. The cockpit windows of his Mosquito are spiderwebbed with cracks. Holes along the side of the plane curve to the radar operator’s position.
The second crewman never climbs out.
The girls recover quickly. They put on their best showbiz smiles, cinch their jackets tight, and go out to kiss the cheeks of the soldiers and flirt and tease or fuss over their charges, each according to his needs. The bloodstained soldier gets Inez and Cora, gentling him along until the medic deems him fit to be released into the company of his waiting companions.
Steve watches from inside the command center, knots rolling into his gut. This is the war of the news reels, not the stage. This is the war he’s supposed to be fighting.
The Toad argues with someone on a phone in the next room, demanding transport into London as soon as possible. Steve can’t make himself join the girls outside, trying to help to these men. He’s a stranger to their pain. He’s a pretender in the uniform of a hero.
Bristol is half a ruin. Their tour bus seems gaudy, in the dim weather, with its bright paint and red, white, and blue decorations. The girls are quiet. Tired in a way none of them have experienced before. Steve feels it himself.
“My parents keep talking like we’ll be bombed any day,” Maxine finally says. She’s from the midwest, or she was before New York. Her parents own an Iowa City grocery store. “They keep talking about insurance and the places they would buy up if the owners got bombed out.”
Pearl puts an arm around Maxine’s shoulders. “Their talk isn’t your fault,” she says, and Steve has never heard her sound so fierce.
When they disembark at their hotel, there’s a curious crowd. A few are off-duty soldiers. Most are the drab survivors of Bristol, fierce people with their teeth and nails sunk in to their home town. Steve looks for Bucky’s face, even in the uniforms of the English and Canadian armed forces. Even in the eyes of the civilians. Sergeant Barnes isn’t there. He never is.
The girls go into their show smiles and delighted waves, blowing kisses at the men and greeting the women, asking about the styles of the ladies’ clothes. Steve is the last to get off, and it’s a little girl who spots him first, looking from the picture on the side of the bus to his face. She wears a ragged dress and shoes held together with twine. He doesn’t see parents, or friends.
He crouches, taking his journal from an inside pocket of his coat and flipping through until he finds the page he wants. It’s a drawing of a cat stretched out along the railing of a porch on one of the bases, colored in with a few pencils shared by an eighteen-year-old boy stationed there. He carefully strips it from the book and holds it out to her.
She looks at it, then at him. “Can you sign it?”
“Of course he can, Peanut.” Gert braces herself on Steve’s shoulder and makes him wobble. “He could probably even draw one of you, if you come to the show. Steve, gimme that book a second.”
He hands it over, pulling the pencil from behind his ear and offering it to Gert. The woman scribbles a note on one of the back pages and tears it out, handing the note over to the girl along with the drawing of the cat. “Show that to the man at the back door, all right?”
She winks at the girl and straightens up. Steve doesn’t, yet.
“What’s your name?” he says.
Steve’s surprise earns him a scowl.
“I like my name.”
“It’s a good name,” he says. “It’s a great name. I knew a woman named Margaret who broke the nose of the biggest guy I’d ever seen.”
He signs the drawing and is forced inside by their escort, who is already unhappy with the presence of the crowd.
That night, after the show, Margaret is waiting in the women’s dressing room. Gert drags Steve in, and the first thing the girl says is, “Draw a picture of the other Margaret. Draw one of her with me.”
They’re shot at twice on the way to Italy. The pilots laugh it off, but Steve saw the flak blackening the sky outside of his window.
The performers don’t know where they are. They don’t know who they’re playing for. Soldiers. Just soldiers. Their first real crowd of veterans. The girls are nervous. Steve feels sick.
The camp is filthy and activity comes in surges of shouting and medical vehicles, and it’s raining.
Ellie loses a boot to the mud and starts to cry.
“It’s always raining in this stupid country,” she says.
Viola glares at her. “We’re in Italy now, not Britain, idiot.”
“Vi, leave her alone.” Steve wriggles the boot free from the mud and gives Ellie a piggy-back ride to their dressing area, which means giving five more before Gert tells the rest of the girls to leave him alone.
They dress in a tent behind the rough wooden stage, the girls on one side of a curtain and Steve on the other. It’s quiet, no one happy, everyone on edge.
It’s Ellie who starts to hum The Star Spangled Man, Pearl and Gert who take up the lyrics of their latest version, this one a raunchy recounting of adventures outside of Manchester.
Steve starts singing the traditional version at the top of his lungs to try and keep himself from hearing what Viola did with the privates of a private, and by the time the Toad calls “Ten minutes!” the laughter is back in the air.
The rain has slacked off a little. Enough that they don’t have to run from tent to the stairs of the stage.
The music starts to warble from a gramophone out of sight. The ladies straighten their helmets. Steve can’t help thinking they look bright, and brave, and worthy, here like this. These women.
“All right, girls,” Gertrude says. “And guy, I guess. We ready for them?” She smiles at Steve, and his nerves start to settle.
Viola links arms with Ellie and Inez.
“You heard her, ladies. Let’s fight.”