“Did you talk with your mother?” she murmured. Aunt Carrie dipped her shoulder, turning slightly to look pointedly at Rodger, ignoring Adele.
“Yeah.” Adele entwined her hand with his. “She’s glad to have me home.”
Adele stared hard at him, pinching his hand. “You have such charm, sometimes.”
“Always.” He winked at her.
Madeline glided to the couch and dropped the four small boxes into Rodger’s lap. Then she went to the liquor cabinet and poured herself a brandy.
Carrie stopped in mid‑sentence. Kyle nodded and smiled at Madeline and walked over to her. He clinked Madeline’s glass, and Adele cupped her hand around Rodger’s glass as he held it up.
“A toast to the homecoming.”
Carrie pointed to the boxes. Rodger ignored her and scooped them into his hand. Adele nudged him gently. “We must be off. Rodger hasn’t seen our new house yet and I have an early doctor’s appointment.”
Rodger dropped the boxes with the medals into a pocket as Adele helped him into his coat. Then he went to Kyle and thrust out his hand. “Buy you a beer tomorrow night.”
Releasing Rodger’s hand, Kyle downed the last of his drink. “Looking forward to it, son.”
Rodger strode over to Madeline and draped an arm around her shoulders.
“We’ll stop by sometime tomorrow.” He hesitated, then kissed her cheek. “And thanks, Mother.”
Madeline’s shoulders sagged; she said nothing, giving him a sad, half-smile.
Carrie elbowed Adele out of the way. Rodger noticed how broad the older woman’s back was, the flowered print dress with the rolls of fat bulging like sausages. Even Aunt Carrie’s shoes splayed out from fat feet. In contrast, Adele in her straining maternity top still seemed lithe and tall, simply an adjusted version of her former self.
Aunt Carrie gripped Rodger’s arm. “I do hope we’ll have a chance to talk tomorrow.”
“Certainly.” Rodger gave her a brisk nod. Laying his hand under Adele’s arm, he escorted her out the door.
“She is such a bitch,” muttered Adele. “Carrie’s done nothing but harp about all the things that weren’t done right by your father.”
“Well, as long as I’m here, the heat’s off you.” Rodger slowed his step to accommodate his wife. “We’ve other things to think about.”
Adele entwined her arm though his and crooned softly,
When I look into your eyes,
I see my world anew,
When I look into your eyes
I fall in love with you.
Words will take us back
To that night I looked into your eyes
And fell in love with you.
Speechless, Rodger stopped and, pressing his face close to hers, looked at Adele for a moment before he could stammer, “Did you compose that? For me?”
“Well,” she blushed and tugged on his arm, taking a step, “yes.”
He felt like a schoolboy with his first love, shy and so much in love that he feared he might do or say something stupid and ruin it. He hugged Adele to him, matching his steps to hers.
Adele gasped. “Oh!”
Rodger pulled up in alarm.
She panted. “Just a stitch. It’s not labor.”
“Maybe I should take the car tonight.”
“No, no, it’s only another block home. You can get it in the morning.”
Rodger felt awkward around this woman at once familiar yet transformed. Still, a wave of tenderness for her washed over him as they strolled along, holding hands, up to the gate of their house. He felt in love with her all over again as she unlocked their front door and walked about the house.
“Nice job on the house.” He walked from room to room. “I like it.”
“Ada helped me.” Adele grabbed him by the hand and pulled him along the hallway into the bedroom. “I guess I should say, a lot of people helped.”
“I’m glad you and Ada are good friends. I knew you would be.” Rodger smiled as Adele stripped him of his coat, shirt, then unbuckled his pants. He kissed her neck. “Just remember I’m not used to sleeping with anyone, so I may hog the whole bed.”
“We’ll hog each other,” Adele kissed and bit his neck, then gave him a shove onto the bed. She climbed in beside him.
After a tense and serious moment of trying to find each other over Adele’s bulk, they burst into laughter. Adele purred as Rodger stroked and explored her new form. She came to him. He relished her loving hands over his body, her kisses deep and binding. He let himself fall into her, and she into him. And between them, the baby. Their baby.
As Adele’s breathing became more rhythmic, Rodger eased his hand out of her fist. So many ways to love. So many different loves. Adele sighed. Rodger scrunched the pillow beneath his head and lay thinking of his father most of the night.
Shafts of morning light filtered through the blinds. When Rodger woke with a start to the banging of pots and pans, it had to mean Adele was up and about.
Rodger sprang out of bed, only to be cut short by painful stiffness in his shoulder. He massaged his neck on his way into the sunny, small kitchen.
“Aren’t you the busy one! Adele, it’s only six in the morning! Are you all right?”
“Yes, it just takes me so long to do anything. If you are to have any breakfast, I have to start early.”
Rodger groaned inwardly. Breakfast, ugh.
“Wonderful.” Stacked pancakes, afloat in butter, with a pitcher of syrup beside his plate, awaited him. He sat down before them and pushed his fork in the middle. “What time do you have to be there?” He swallowed whole, unchewed bites.
“Nine.” Adele sipped on orange juice. “First patient of the day.”
“I’d better get on over to Mother’s for the car.” He bolted from the table, pushing the plate with half‑eaten food onto the kitchen counter. He shaved, wrestled the toothbrush and powder, washed and dressed in a clean uniform.
“Adele! Could you help me tie my shoes?”
She waddled in the bedroom and he regretted asking. He lay back on the bed and stuck his foot in the air, nose level, making Adele giggle as she grabbed his foot.
“You’re rather vulnerable, my dear man.”
“You better not play with me, woman, or we’ll miss your appointment.”
She stuck her tongue out at him and plopped onto the bed, cradling his foot, tying the shoelaces. She motioned for his other foot.
“There, now go and let me finish getting ready myself.” She leaned over and kissed him fully on the mouth before pushing him out into the hallway.
He stopped at the front door. “Maybe I’ll ask Ada to borrow her Chevy.”
“No, Rodger. Your mother is counting on you to use hers.” Adele popped her head around the corner of the hall door; her tone was firm and unyielding. “Don’t make it a contest between them to see which one you’ll choose. It wouldn’t be fair to either your mother or Ada.”
Rodger sprinted the two and a half blocks to his mother’s house. He let himself inside and listened for anyone about but found no one up yet. He quickly found the keys hanging in their old spot next to the back door and scooped them up, hurrying out to the garage where his knapsack rested against the door. He grunted as he grabbed the handle of the garage door and swung it up. He pitched his knapsack into the trunk, then jumped into the driver’s seat, gunned the engine and backed the car out, leaving it idling while he dropped the garage door back down. He zipped along, enjoying the feel of being behind the wheel. He parked and waited beside the front door for Adele.
He offered his arm and hustled her to the car, seated her and got inside, rapping his fingers anxiously on the steering wheel while she nestled into the seat. He almost forgot about her as he accelerated along the main street.
“Don’t speed, honey. We’re there,” Adele pointed to the white wooden older house converted into a professional office, with the bold, black-lettered “Dr. Adams, General Practitioner” across the front of the door.
Everything took so much time. Rodger found himself wanting to shove Adele in and out of the car, through doors, into the doctor’s office. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Waiting in the waiting room. Nice office, though with comfortable wooden chairs lined neatly against the wall across from the receptionist. Not much to look at there. He twisted his chair to look out the window and stared at Old Man Jenkins’ place, trapped in childhood memories.
Down this street, to the corner of Main and Melrose, he had gotten into his first childhood fight at eleven years old on a hot, sunny August morning. He had been walking with his dad to the Longhorn Bank, trying to tell him about what his mother had done to him, making him wear a diaper the whole day.
“Son, we’ll talk about this after work, I promise. I have to open the tellers’ boxes.”
“Oh, sure dad,” Rodger had said with a shrug and waved his dad good-bye.
He had raced back to the corner of the street where his gang would be. He’d suggest they all go fishing.
Two bigger boys were standing by his best friend Tommy. Three other friends stood apart, glancing up and down the sidewalk, waiting for Rodger.
Even now, remembering, Rodger’s neck muscles tensed. No one had smiled. As Rodger came closer, he made out the faces of the two twelve-year-olds, Mike and Bobby. They turned to face him.
“Where’s your diaper today, little baby?”
Rodger looked at Tommy, wanting his best friend to move out of the circle. But Tommy didn’t move. He didn’t look at Rodger either.
“We don’t want babies slowing us down. So run along home, sonny, and play in your play pen.” Mike and Bobby laughed. The taller one, Mike, pretended to cradle a baby in his arms. He pantomimed throwing the imaginary child up in the air and then catching it. On the third toss, he let it fall.
“Say, Rodger, could we borrow your diaper to clean up this mess?”
His body had turned to lead. He couldn’t move. He could hear his heart pounding in his ears and feel his palms sweat. At least Tommy hadn’t laughed.
The other three were wide‑eyed, with stupid grins across their faces. So much for friendship.
“Say Rodger, do you get a bottle or something better?” At this, Mike pantomimed unbuttoning a blouse and pulling out a breast.
Bobby pursed his lips, cooing loudly, “Momma, momma, hummm, good.”
The thought of being smothered in his mother’s arms infuriated him. He could see her as she squashed his baby sister against her. His face flushed in mad‑red splotches. Heat burned through his body, dissolving the numbness.
Before Mike could say anything more, Rodger jumped at him, swinging his arm wide. He missed Mike’s face, but hit him on the shoulder. Unprepared for a fight, Mike took the second punch square in the stomach. Bobby didn’t move. When Rodger went for him, he turned his shoulder, butting Rodger off balance. Then Bobby clobbered Rodger with his right fist.
Rodger thudded on the sidewalk, scraping his elbow. Mike stepped toward him, but Rodger rolled out of the way of a kick. He sprang up and went for Mike, but Bobby shoved him in mid‑flight, sending him sprawling again on the concrete. As he got to his feet, knuckles mashed into his nose. The pain splayed outward, washing his eyes in greens and reds.
Whoosh! came a fist into his stomach. He recovered enough to shield his face from the onslaught of rock‑hard hands. Then he lowered his head and rammed blindly into one of them, grabbing him about the waist. Together they landed on the ground, holding desperately to one another, rolling over and over, each pushing and clawing at the other to gain the advantage. Rodger jabbed his elbow hard into flesh before being pulled off and kicked in the side.
Winded and unable to move, he figured he had had it then and lay waiting for more painful blows. But none came. A strange voice drifted around his aching head. He turned over and squinted up to see the face of Mr. Jenkins.
Mike jerked his arm free of the old man, glowering at Rodger. “I’ll take care of you another day, little baby.” Mike backed away, scowling as Bobby turned and crossed the street.
The doctor’s office began to fill with mothers and small children. One little boy, fast on his feet, darted about the room, flinging magazines on the floor. His mother corralled him, yanking him by the arm into a seat.
“Sit right there, young man,” she commanded, handing him an opened picture book and pointing. “Here, why don’t you look at this? See the pretty pictures?”
The fidgeting youngster shook his head and sprung the pin on his diaper.
His mother slapped his hand, making him howl.
Rodger turned away from them and searched for the vacant lot he remembered as a kid. A house with a big, green front lawn stood there, now. It hadn’t been like that the day of the fight.
Rodger had eased himself up onto his feet, brushing vainly at the dirt‑clotted blood on his knees.
“Rodger Brown! You could git yourself killed by such foolish acts.” The old man peered steadily at Rodger. “You better learn to box before you take on someone twice your size. You git yourself on home and let your mother tend you.”
“I’m all right.”
The blood still dribbled from his nose, tasting salty on his lips. His body tingled and stung all over.
Retreating into his house, the old man shooed them away, “You boys git along home now.”
Rodger stood against the others, staring them down.
Tommy finally blinked. He moved from one foot to the other. “Uh, do you still wanna go see Tom Mix in Galloping Herds today?”
“After lunch. Meet me back here at one.”
The others stirred, yet would not go. Tommy moved closer to Rodger. “You better do something about your nose. It’s still bleeding, Rodg.”
Rodger wiped his hand across his mouth, shaken by the streak of bright red blood. He felt sick. He couldn’t go home like this. His mother would get hysterical. His pants were ruined. She’d hate the mess.
Rodger walked over to a vacant lot, where a worn-out, abandoned shack still stood. He went around back, where once a porch had been, sat heavily against a broken step, and picked at his elbow. His nose throbbed, and he winced as he scraped at the encrusted blood. He played his finger in the trickling wetness of his own blood. His left eye twitched spasmodically.
He sat a while, absently watching the passing clouds, chasing one another across the sky. Even though he ached all over and was sure to be in a mess of trouble, he was proud of himself.
Miss Ada. That was it! She’d been swell about having him spend the night with her, and giving him the underwear. Rodger could still imagine the diaper lying upon the navy and red striped bedspread of Ada’s extra bedroom. It had been her son’s bedroom.
Funny, she didn’t seem like a lady that once had a kid. She certainly wasn’t like his mother. Miss Ada would never make an eleven-year-old kid wear a diaper. Bloodied and bruised, he’d gone to Ada’s house. Ada hadn’t winced at the sight of him. She’d cleansed the wounds and mended his pants. He had loved her more that day than anyone else, ever.
“Mrs. Berkeley, you and James can see the doctor now,” the nurse called, snagging Rodger from his reverie. He laughed softly, causing the receptionist to look up at him. He arched his eyebrows, wiggling them until the wizened old lady looked down again at her books, and his thoughts returned to the most unforgettable days of his life.
He had met Big Red the next day after having met Ada.
At lunch time he’d gone and waited by the back door of the bank for his father to leave. First thing his dad had said was, “Are you in trouble with your mother?”
He had explained in detail about the fight with Mike and Bobby because of the diaper. He mentioned how Miss Ada had helped him.
“You mean to tell me your mother put a diaper on you and made you play outside?” Although his father had looked steadily at him, his mouth was set in a way that let anyone know not to fool with him. Rodger watched him as he tapped his teeth with his right index finger; it always meant his dad would come up with a really good solution.
“That diaper might be a blessing in disguise, son. Come along, I’ll introduce you to a good friend of mine.”
And what a good friend Big Red had turned out to be. Seven years of training and boxing. Made him into a Golden Gloves champion. If only there was a way to get in touch with Big Red, tell him about Adele, the baby, and his Army career.
Rodger jingled the change in his pocket then found the ivory bead that Mary Elizabeth had given him. He played with it. He checked his watch again. What could possibly take Adele so long? Rodger picked up a magazine and thumbed through it, not settling on any one article.
The little boy whizzed around in a circle, touching every chair as he passed. He stopped before Rodger, smiling. Rodger tried to ignore him. Other mothers in the room regarded the child with tolerant smiles. The little boy laid his hand softly on Rodger’s knee. The boy’s mother jumped up.
“Don’t bother the man, Nathan.” She jerked at his arm. “Sorry, but all he has ever seen is a picture of his father in uniform.”
Rodger nodded and surveyed the room. The doctor’s office reminded him of his elementary school classrooms. Cramped. Never enough chairs for everyone.
He snapped his gum. The receptionist scowled at him.
Adele appeared at the doorway, Dr. Adams behind her.
Doc Adams still looked the same. Rodger remembered him from the days he had been ringside and had laid a few heavy bets on a smoker or two. Rodger had made him some money.
Adele plodded out to the chair next to his and sat.
“Your turn. The ‘new father’ lecture.”
“Do I —?”
“Yes. The sooner done, sooner over.” She gestured to the door.
As Rodger went into the door, he collided with little Nathan. He stopped, put his hand on the child’s head, and pushed him away.
“You’d be a great boxer some day, kid. Use all that energy up.”
The little boy did not make a sound, just stood and watched him. He was fiddling with the pin on the other side of his diaper and popped that one. The diaper dangled. Rodger laughed, turning into the doctor’s office.
The doctor, a small man with a face straight out of a leather‑bound text book, sat hunched over papers at his desk.
“Sit down, Rodger.” His eyebrows shot up in approval. “Colonel Brown.” He waited. “Do any boxing in the Army?”
Rodger crossed his arms. “Some. Mostly against Navy. Won a few, lost a few.”
Framed degrees littered the wall. Mahogany paneling made the room dark like a dungeon. A headless, grotesque mannequin, sliced through the stomach to reveal a fetus nestled in the womb, squatted on top of a mountain of ragged‑edged journals.
The doctor pushed aside his papers and leaned back in his chair. “There may be complications with Mrs. Brown’s pregnancy. I can’t find a heartbeat.” He raised his hand. “It may not mean anything. Or, it may mean the baby’s stillborn.” His lined face hardened. “Mrs. Brown will go into a normal labor. Best not to say anything to her.”
“What the hell!” Rodger sat on the edge of the chair. “You mean the baby could be dead?”
“Could be. I don’t know for sure.”
“And she doesn’t know it?” Rodger pointed behind him. His stomach roiled.
“No. And there’s no reason for her to know. Yet.” The doctor laced his fingers in front of him. “Colonel, there are some things that only God knows for sure.”
“Is Adele going to be all right? Or does only God know that, too?”
“There’s no need to get belligerent, Rodger. Your wife should be all right. There’s no good explanation why these things happen; sometimes they just do.”
Rodger clenched and unclenched his fists. “That’s it? That’s all you can say?” He jumped to his feet. “That’s a hell of a note, Doctor. In other words, we play it as it comes.”
“Exactly. I would hope you would be with her at all times. Except during the delivery.”
“I should be with her then.”
“Not done, Colonel.”
Rodger hissed. “Make me an exception to the rule.”
The doctor shook his head. “Hospital regulations. You understand.”
“Yeah, I understand.” Rodger just caught the door from slamming on his way out deciding not to antagonize the old man.
Adele’s beatific smile as she gazed on a mother holding a sleeping infant transfixed Rodger until she saw him.
“Were you appropriately new-fatherish for Dr. Adams?”
He helped her up. “I’m the best new father in town. Just ask him.” He guided her into the front seat of the car. “I’m going to drop you off at Mother’s for a while. I want to go to the cemetery.”
“I could be with you.”
“I need to be alone.”
He felt all of the unspoken love between them as they drove up to his mother’s house. Adele squeezed his arm. “I’ll be nice to your aunt. I hope I can have some time with Kyle.”
“He’ll arrange it.” Rodger opened the gate for her.
“I can manage it from here.” She threw out her chest, making herself even larger. “I’m invincible!”
As he drove off, he thought of Adele. Strong enough to take on the live ones. He gripped the steering wheel until his hands hurt.
He’d take on the dead ones.
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