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USS New Jersey launch, Dec 7, 1942, Philadelphia

USS New Jersey launch, Dec 7, 1942, Philadelphia Image Donated by Corbis – Bettmann

December, 1942, University of Chicago


Verdi studied the grainy photo of the USS New Jersey, just christened and frozen forever as it skidded backward into its watery wake. “STEAMING TOWARD VICTORY” blared the headline of the Chicago Herald. Halfway down the long launching ramp, one solitary worker stood, staring out at the retreating behemoth, his hat to his side. The news article went on, celebrating the New Jersey’s military potential as fitting commemoration of the first anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Verdi flipped through the rest of the paper but could find no mention of the bombing of Naples. He returned to the front page photo. Here, they lick one military wound for a year, their mourning becoming—what was the term—? Gung-ho. The Americans were gung-ho, going to fight far across the ocean. Verdi pushed his soft-boiled egg aside.
“You must eat something.”

He looked up and saw Sophia pale and tired and small, lips pursed. He folded the paper so the front page did not show. “I am not hungry. And it is time for work.” He bit his bitter tongue, buttoned his coat, and kissed her. “Especially if I am to be home in time to light the menorah. Tell the children good morning for me.”

With that he stepped out, picking his way down the unplowed street past unlit houses, willing himself to focus upon the work ahead. Unlike that ship worker, no one would catch him staring at his leviathan.

First would be the unavoidable meeting with Greenworld and Taunton. Then he must inspect the new batch of uranium eggs, then a ride out to the woods to tour the faraway forest Taunton had convinced Droves to use for assembling the next pile. Argonne, a name from an earlier war.

Inside Eckhart, past the guard, the light was garishly bright, garlands of red and green tinsel draped everywhere. Verdi signed in, took a breath of stuffy air and climbed to the second floor where Miss Sawyer gave him a chilly smile, all the time watching to make sure he checked his box.

Hawthorne Greenworld, E. I. DuPont de Nemours made earnest flesh, called yet another meeting to top secret order at seven-thirty. Inexorably he pried the discussion from theoretical physics to industrial buildout, the general’s edicts his fulcrum.

When specifically called upon, Verdi offered up his pithy postulation on what would be required to move and reassemble the pile at Argonne, The pile now called CP2.
Leona took notes for him. She made lists of still-needed materials, their specifications and operational variables. She faithfully copied Greenworld’s latest organizational diagram, noted his revised schedule, and diligently omitted any reference to arguments about jurisdiction and appropriation. And she took due note of what was not discussed: Taunton’s ever-diminishing authority.

When the meeting ended she grabbed her coat and chased after Verdi, half-blinded by the dazzling sun and snow outside Eckhart.

“Marionettes.” Verdi did not even break stride when she stumbled. “Droves writes the script, Greenworld pulls our strings, and we dance.”

His bitterness blindsided Leona. This meeting had been no more acrimonious than others.

“Greenworld may call out the steps, but I haven’t seen you dancing.”

“Very clever.” Verdi picked up his pace. “Of course, you run your own puppet show.” He met her confusion with a grim smile. “Of admirers. F.A. and now Oliver.”

Leona choked out a lame retort, the narrow sidewalk forcing her behind Verdi as they entered the black shadow of Stagg stadium.

“Good morning.” Syzygy was waiting.

“Good morning.” Verdi reached for the door.

“And to you, young lady.” Syzygy blocked their passage with a slight bow.

Verdi smiled and let go of the handle. “You have been lying in wait.”

“Perhaps.” Syzygy also smiled. “A brief walk?”

Verdi shrugged, nodding for Leona to come along. They followed Syzygy back into the sun.

At the corner, hands deep in his coat pockets, he stopped. “Taunton again bans me from the Met Lab. But this time Droves has agreed.”

Verdi would not meet Syzygy’s watchful eyes. Leona rocked on her numb feet, pretending she was invisible.

“It would only take a few words from you.” Syzygy sighed, and sighed again. “You must speak to the General on my behalf. Which is also your own.”

“You ask too much.” Verdi hid behind the cloud of his frozen breath. “My wife and children are safe for now, only because of the general.” Wide-eyed, Leona watched him pivot and begin the walk back to Stagg.

Syzygy gave her his saddest smile. “Go with him.”

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