Ada watched Heather and Rachel playing kickball from the kitchen window while washing her breakfast dishes, reminded of Rodger as a toddler zipping around the yard in constant motion; older, he would be digging moats around a fortress or turning soil for bugs to examine. As a teenager, he would eat her oatmeal‑raisin cookies every Saturday as he worked about her house doing odd jobs. Wiping her dripping hands across her apron, she searched the pantry for flour and sugar.
She ought to call Heather and Rachel over and let them help with the cookies. But as she sifted and measured, an easy feeling came over her. She began to hum as she pulled the cookie pans out and readied the oven. Little lumpy mounds spread across in rows on the metal sheets. The batches browned evenly, the hot, sweet aroma filling the kitchen and overflowing throughout the house. Ada relished the welcomed smell and memories as she searched for a small box to ship half the cookies to Rodger.
As she pulled the last pan of eighteen cookies from the oven rack and set them aside to cool, she bent over the sink and called out the window to Rachel and Heather.
“Girls! Would you help me eat some freshly baked cookies? It seems I’ve made too many.”
Heather dropped the ball and darted for the gate. Rachel hesitated, then ran quickly to the back door, asking Madeline’s permission.
Heather waited at the back door for Rachel. Rachel stomped over to her and snipped, “You ninny! What if Mother had said no?”
Rachel pushed ahead through the door, snapping, “Good thing I think of these things, or we’d be in trouble all the time.”
Heather’s smile vanished, and she bit her lip.
Ada hugged Heather. “I should have checked with your mother. Let’s not dwell on what might have happened. On with our party!”
Both girls, familiar with Ada’s house, began to set the table. Their girlish voices buzzed excitedly about Ada’s ears.
“Mother and Daddy are going away for a week in the country. Adele is going to stay with us.” Rachel lined up the napkins, her lips drawn taut and her girlish face pinched, reminding Ada of a little old lady.
“Oh, she’s so much fun, Ada! She lets us have peanut butter and jam for lunch on Saturdays. With cocoa.” Heather stood beside Ada, leaning into her as she imparted her wonderful news.
Ada stopped scraping cookies from the pan to look down into Heather’s arresting, aqua‑tinted eyes. Rachel talked non‑stop. Ada listened with the sense that things were as they should be, which made her aware of her own smile.
“I’m sure that Adele will like staying with you. You girls have made quite the friends with her, haven’t you? I’ll get the milk and you two sit down now.”
After they had eaten and cleared the dishes, they began carefully packing the box with cookies for Rodger. Rachel was oddly silent while Heather asked a string of questions about the package.
“Won’t the cookies be stale? And all broken up into a hundred pieces? Do you think he’ll eat them anyway?”
Ada was just about to answer Heather when Rachel hissed, “Why don’t you just shut up and do your share of the work? What does it matter, anyway, if he gets them at all?”
Ada flinched. Heather, her eyes bleeding tears, looked at Rachel. Disgusted, Rachel walked away from the table and into the living room.
Ada smoothed away Heather’s teardrops. “Hush, baby, it’s all right. I’ll go talk with Rachel.” She kissed Heather on the forehead. “You stay here and fill the box to where I’ve penciled in a line. That’s my sweetheart.”
Ada walked into the living room and sat beside the petulant thirteen-year-old. Rachel’s long, chestnut hair fell in waves down her back and across her arms, hiding her face from Ada in its thickness. Ada stroked Rachel’s head. For several minutes Rachel sat motionless, and Ada gazed outside through the filmy curtains.
Suddenly, John came into view, walking up the street, swinging his cane, casting his head from side to side as if to catch all of the sights and keep them to himself. Ada wanted to stop him. Chide him for his overconfidence. Pushing himself beyond the limit. A gambler. Always a gambler.
Ada’s heart skipped painfully as she thought of him leaving for a whole week. There was so little time to be together. So much time alone.
She felt the tension in Rachel’s body begin to ease as she raised her head. She stared straight ahead, out the window. They both watched John disappear into the house.
“Rachel, dear, tell me what’s bothering you.” Ada hesitated. “You mustn’t feel very good about something, or you wouldn’t be so mean to Heather.”
Rachel looked over, tears noiselessly streaking down her face. She blurted all in one breath. “Why is it always ‘Rodger this, Rodger that’? Everything for Rodger. Rodger, Rodger, Rodger. What has he done that’s so great? A big hero or something.”
Ada didn’t know what to say. Not so long ago, Madeline rarely even mentioned Rodger. But since his marriage to Adele and the impending birth of their baby, Madeline spoke often and lovingly of Rodger, romanticizing his childhood. And John spoke of Rodger’s medals and promotions.
“You know, Rachel, it’s funny how a person seems to think more about someone when they’re gone.”
Rachel stared at Ada, her eyes a mirror of anger, jealousy and fear. An adult could never get by with staring at another person that way, thought Ada.
“I’m nervous about Rodger’s Chinese friends, LinChing and Mary Elizabeth.” Ada leaned close to whisper into Rachel’s ear. “I wish Rodger could come home and be with us by himself for a while. Don’t you?”
Rachel nodded. Ada could remember Rachel at three trailing behind Rodger while he pruned, weeded and mowed. Ada had nicknamed her “Rodger’s tag‑along kid.” Rodger had always been patient with Rachel. He never neglected to remember both of his sisters in his letters. Once in while, Rachel received her own letter from Rodger. Then along came Adele. And LinChing and Mary Elizabeth. And a new baby.
Rachel sighed. Ada sighed. Poor Rachel, last place in Rodger’s heart.
“It’s real hard not to be jealous, isn’t it? Everyone tells us it’s wrong, but we can’t help feeling that way.”
Rachel narrowed her eyes, but smiled weakly. Ada’s own anguish increased as she gazed back, wondering if they could adjust to these changes in their lives without heartbreak. Heather came into the room and stood at the doorway, shifting from one foot to another.
Suddenly, Ada thought of John again. She looked out the window once more, lingering a moment.
Then she clapped her hands together. “Girls! Let’s get that package wrapped and hop on down to the post office, lickety‑split!”
They bustled about in the kitchen, gathering scissors, tape, pen, and string. As they finished the last tie, Ada paused, loudly sucking in her breath, and pointing her index finger skyward.
“I’ll call your mother, right now!”
Rachel gave her a tiny smile, while giggles bubbled from Heather.
All heads turned as Adele knocked, then let herself in the back door. Heather ran to her and threw her pudgy arms around Adele’s bulging stomach.
Adele groaned. “Just think, Heather, in a couple of months your little arms will reach all the way around my waist.”
Adele, with Heather in tow, took a cookie and waddled into the living room. “I’m going to take the girls to their piano lesson and I’ll go on to the doctor’s.”
Both girls moaned. Heather whispered something to Rachel, for which her older sister admonished her. “It’s not my fault you don’t practice. All you want to do is play around and not learn anything, dumbbell.”
“Rachel! Can’t you be a bit nicer?” Adele patted Heather on the head. “I think Heather has done a wonderful job of learning the piano. She is, after all, two years younger than you.”
Rachel glared at Adele.
Ada drew Heather into a hug. “You’ll have to practice twice as hard next week, right?” Heather frowned, then her face crinkled with a smile.
Ada encircled Rachel with her other arm and followed Adele out the door. “Come, on, I’ll walk all of you to the gate. Maybe first thing tomorrow we’ll go down to the post office.”
Ada held the gate open as the girls skipped past. She quickly squeezed Adele’s arm as she lumbered after the girls. “Tell me what the doctor says.” She waved them good‑bye until they were out of sight.
She tarried in her front yard, looking for the late spring blooms. She should get mulch for her garden. She tilted her head back to watch the darkening gray clouds amassing in the sky as though they were collecting her thoughts to rain down upon her.
Back inside she nervously watched through each window for any movement on the street, expecting John. A stolen hour. Like a sinner, her anticipation of the deed was as great as the act itself. The loud ticking of the grandfather clock hurt her every nerve.
The back door creaked, and with it John’s resonant voice carried into the living room. “Ada? Are you here?”
“Yes!” she blurted. “Come in.” She met him in the kitchen and as he seated himself, she took out the china cups and put the tea kettle on to boil. “I’ll get us some tea.”
“Milk?” Ada suddenly wished that John were not sitting there in her kitchen wanting a conversation. Yet at the same time she wanted him to stay. If only she could have told him about Kyle, but it seemed a breech of their relationship to tell John of another man.
John looked at her quizzically. “Well, for the last forty years I’ve taken sugar.”
Ada realized with a start it was Kyle who took milk.
“You seem distracted, Ada. Care to share what’s bothering you with a friend?” John blew across his cup, bending and curling the steam.
“It’s the times,” Ada said, her voice wavering, not wanting him to guess at conflict of desire she had for him.
Ada bristled. “I sometimes allow myself to indulge in self‑pity. If you were any kind of a good friend, you would shake me loose from it. Not encourage me.”
John’s head snapped up when as he caught the irritation in her voice.
Ada immediately regretted her outburst. “Mind you, don’t shake me so hard you throw me out of my tree, however.”
She looked directly into his eyes. He reached over and with a gentle wiggle of her hand, enfolded it in his. Even though it pained her swollen, arthritic hand, Ada laughed out loud, in turn pleased by the softening of John’s face with a bemused look. His hand stayed on top of hers, resting as it were, while neither spoke nor moved.
Ada leaned into the back of her chair, eyes darting sideways to the window on her garden. “Why don’t we sit on the patio on this nice June afternoon? I might get up the energy to pull a weed.” But neither one moved.
“Remember when we thought World War I was the end of all wars?” Ada whispered.
John nodded. They sat without speaking for several minutes, each listening for the other. With just the rustling of his cotton shirt as he pulled himself upright, John pushed against his cane and started for the back door. Ada picked up the cups, put them into the sink then followed him out to her garden. Beneath the arbor, they sat on the bench swing, holding hands in companionable silence.
“Ada,” John turned to look at her, “we’ve been friends for a long time, but I know so very little about you. You’re a hometown girl, aren’t you?”
“I grew up on farm not far from where the old water tower used to be. I was the oldest of nine children,” she paused and they both watched a robin take wing, then she continued. “I took care of my sisters and brothers from crib to high school. I always thought I would have a large family myself one day. Isn’t it ironic that I lost my only child?” She stared only at the garden, not daring to look at John’s face. “Maybe that’s why I have taken such an interest in Rodger,” she hurriedly added, “and the girls. Now with the baby coming, and maybe LinChing and Mary Elizabeth, I guess I’ll have a large family!”
“I’m thankful that you’ll always be a part of our family, Ada.” John gave her hand the gentlest squeeze.
When Ada noticed her heart’s echoes ringing in her ears, she slowly extracted her hand from John’s and rose to pick up her gardening tools. John sat observing her without comment. She kept her eyes to the ground, furiously working her hands around the throats of the weeds.
She paused in her digging, hunger pangs reminding her that it must be well past noon. She snatched three ripe tomatoes dangling from a plant in front of her, and leaving her tools lie, walked past John and into the kitchen.
“Are you hungry, John?” she called. “I’ll throw some of these onto bread and butter for us. Do you like toasted white or wheat?”
“I’ll have plain white, please.” John’s voice was subdued, shrouded in politeness.
Ada hurriedly made the sandwiches, flinging them onto small, rose‑patterned china plates. She went back outside and dragged two Andirock chairs on each side of the wooden table. Before sitting down, she returned to the house and hunted in the kitchen drawers for two matching linen napkins.
John wrestled himself out from the swing and crabbed his way to the chair. He sat motionless, waiting for her to join him. The more she hurried, the longer it took her to find anything.
Finally she located the floral printed napkins in the first drawer she had already rummaged. Annoyed, she pulled at them, squeezing them in the middle as she marched to the table.
“I’ve been rearranging drawers to make room for Rodger’s friends, but I seemed to have disorganized my whole house doing it.” She watched him eat the sandwich hungrily.
“Regrets?” he asked swallowing a mouthful.
How she loved the way he could cut to the bone of an issue! The knots in her stomach unraveled. “No.” She frowned, offering him the truth from her heart. “We never become involved more than we want for ourselves.”
Putting his napkin beside the empty plate, he looked long and searchingly at her. “I think Maddie finally realizes how much you’ve done. I was afraid for Maddie when Rodger was little. He was a difficult baby and Maddie cried a lot and worried that she must be an awful mother. Thank God she had the girls!” John creased the napkin when a stroke of his long fingers. “She used to resent the time Rodger spent with you, but Lord knows, she barely could stand have him in the house. The two girls were less of a mess than one Rodger.”
Although Ada chuckled, John’s words disturbed her deeply. Just where did she fit in? She could never turn away Rodger when he needed her, nor could she shut herself off from John, Rachel, Heather, or even Madeline. She was damned to understand them all.
“Perhaps Madeline and Rodger will come to an agreement one day.”
“I hope so. I guess we have to take the consequences of our lives, no matter how small they might be.”
His sadness touched Ada, making her sad too. But she had no words of comfort, for she wasn’t sure of what sin he thought he should atone for. She reached across the table for his hand.
“You never told Rodger about your Army days.” Ada played her thumb along the inside half‑circle of John’s hand.
“D‑a‑z‑e?” He smiled, clasping her hand in his. “Just a bit of a smile?”
She smiled and squeezed his hand.
“No, I promised Madeline when Rodger was born I’d never talk about ‘those days of glory.’ ” He scratched his chin with both of their hands. “I worry about Rodger, too. For a lot of reasons.”
“You mustn’t feel you’ve let Rodger down, John.”
He shrugged. “I probably let Rodger down in ways I don’t even know about.”
Ada wondered at his sensitivity and how much of this man lay hidden from himself and others, yet he could be so forthright with her. She felt the familiar sting of regret of what might have been for them but pushed it aside.
“Our children are mirrors of our inner truths. But, how much of ourselves can we give to our children? How much will they take?” She wished she could give him more than just words.
John stared straight ahead, talking in a monotone. “I don’t think Rodger understood how I could quit being an engineman. Quit the life of a hoghead, highballing those freight trains as fast as the speed of light. Give up that to become a banker.”
He flicked away a fly.
“God, I wish I could have flown!” he burst out.
Ada had closed her eyes, letting time mingle memories of their lives over the years. “You’ve lived a full life.” She leaned close enough to kiss his cheek. “I should say ‘lives’: engineman, soldier, gambler, and,” she swept her free hand palm up, “Indian Chief.”
He pressed his cheek to hers. “Rodger won’t understand until he has the same decision to face.”
“Maybe Adele will make it easier for him,” Ada whispered.
She heard the sounds of girlish voices. She disentangled their hands and gave John’s arm a shove, at once holding him and letting him go.
“Be gone, back-door man. There’ll be time enough for us later.”
Ada took the dishes inside and from the kitchen window she could see John leaning against the fence, making faces at her. She fought to keep her face expressionless, pushing down the rising threat of laughter. She waved him away with mock impatience, both delighted and irritated when he blew an indiscrete kiss to her.
Ada turned her attention to Adele and the girls. Heather and Rachel would run ahead, circle back and around Adele as she shooed them onto their own doorstep. Ada could almost feel the weight of Adele’s pregnancy as she shuffled along the sidewalk and came up the walkway. She heard Adele’s careful steps as she picked her way up the front stairs. Adele pulled at the screen door and rapped twice before nudging the front door open. Ada stepped away from the sink and turned to greet her.
“Oh, my God!” Ada heard Adele gasp.
In her confusion, Ada thought Adele had seen John’s foolish displays of affection. Her horrified expression impelled Ada to turn back to the window.
John had fallen and was crawling on his hands and knees toward the back door of his house. He frantically jerked at his collar, stopping to sit back upon his heels. His head was thrown back, and his gaping mouth hung open as his sides heaved. He plucked at his collar and clenched his ribs with the other arm.
Ada ran to him. He lay prone as she searched his right pants pocket, jerking it inside out. Adele was beside him, loosening the tie and top button of his shirt. Ada fumbled through his other pocket, lying across his stilled chest as she searched for the nitroglycerin pill. She found the steel capsule container and worked it until the lid snapped open. She snatched a pill and shoved it into John’s mouth, forcing it past his lips and under his tongue. She tried to find his carotid pulse, pressing two fingers underneath his chin, and along his throat.
“John! John! Please open your eyes!” she demanded of him. She grabbed his chin, thinking to keep it shut tight so that the pill would dissolve faster.
Adele reached over and shoved Ada’s hand away from John. The little pill rolled out and onto the ground.
“It’s no use, Ada. He’s dead.”
“No! He’s not!” She picked up his wrist and searched for a pulse; then lay her head upon his chest. She heard no heartbeat. Her panic ebbed, and an eerie calmness stole over her. She looked up at Adele, sure the young woman understood.
“Stay with him. He’d want that.” Adele struggled to her feet. “I’ll tell Madeline.”
Ada nodded, sitting heavily onto the grass. She cradled John’s head in her lap and stroked his cheek. No more, no more. Up, down, up, down over the stubbles of his late‑day beard. No more. No more.
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