The noon glare of the sun hurt Rodger’s eyes as he fumbled for his sunglasses. He settled back into the driver’s seat, contented, as he drove fast along the highway, from the lower eastside of Chicago to Wilmington. The ring box lay on the seat next to him. He glanced at it occasionally, pleased that he had thought of the perfect tokens of his love. He had enjoyed the mystified look on the jeweler’s face when he requested that Adele’s ring be engraved with two dates: their first night together and their wedding day.
He whistled, enjoying the rolling countryside as it flashed by. He pressed the accelerator, urging the Olds faster and faster, until the greens and browns blurred and the wind whipped his shirt sleeve as he gripped the side mirror with his left hand.
Pulling into the driveway, he focused on Madeline’s face as she sat on the porch swing talking with Carrie. He was forty‑five minutes ahead of schedule, which should please his mother. His aunt groaned when she saw him approach and the lawn chair shivered as she stood up.
“Goodness, it’s going to be a hot day. Madeline and I were just saying that the weather looks like it’ll last all summer. A hot one.”
Rodger started to toss his mother the car keys, but thought better of it. He stopped at the bottom step and dropped the keys into her outstretched hand.
“Rodger, if you would like the car,” she pinched the keys between her thumb and forefinger, “you could drop me off and pick me up at four.”
Rodger shook his head. “No. I can walk where I’m going.”
His aunt handed him a long, thin sheet of paper. He scanned it, folding it carefully under her watchful eyes, and pocketed it.
“I’ll take care of this.”
He understood why Kyle had to get away from this house. All these demands trapped a man.
“Rodgie,” Carrie clung to Rodger’s wrist, “I better explain a few things on that list. I was telling Madeline that you should…”
“Carrie, Rodger’s certainly capable of figuring out what needs to be done.” Madeline flicked her skirt with a finger.
“Well, all I meant was for him to be sure and take care of the first things on the list. There are some important details that if left unattended will prove very costly,” Carrie looked sharply at Madeline, “to you, in the end. And in your state of mind, you wouldn’t know what is and isn’t important right now.”
“Oh, cat’s poop, Carrie,” Madeline hissed.
Rodger slipped his wrist from his aunt’s grasp and started to back away from the two women, but Madeline stood up, raising a hand to delay him. “A letter came for you this morning. Just a minute.”
She opened the door and disappeared into the house.
Rodger smiled at his aunt, edging one foot behind the other down the stairs. “I’ll take care of things, don’t worry.”
Carrie shrugged, pursing her lips. “I understand that she’s under a lot of strain, but honestly, sometimes!” She heaved an offended sigh.
Rodger braced himself for more of his aunt’s incessant complaining when Madeline appeared in the doorway. She walked over to him and thrust the letter into his hand.
“It looks important.”
He looked at it. Government. He crushed it into his pocket, stepping away from the porch.
“Aren’t you going to open it, Rodg?” Aunt Carrie inquired sweetly.
“Later. Gotta run, ladies. Promised Adele that I’d see to a few things.” He waved to them and turned away.
Rodger could see Ada’s porch light still burning, faint in the bright sunshine. Suddenly, he felt adrift. Adele and the baby would be home tomorrow. He had all of today to be by himself. He could do as he pleased.
He walked uptown, past the Longhorn Bank where his father had worked half his life. He cut across the alley and went into colored town, the “other side” of town, past old Joe’s Saloon where his father had slipped in now and again for a drink with the people who called him “Casey John.”
He’d been scared and excited the day his father had walked him down to the gym. Rodger had pulled on his father’s coat sleeve. “How do you know these people, Dad?”
His father’s booming laugh had rung loud and clear, making people stop and wonder at the two of them.
“Used to spar a little in my day. The enginemen used to have smokers. The best of the lot would go the last fight. Four rounds, three minutes each. A really good fight lasted five or six rounds. Picked up extra spending money.” He had stopped and put a hand on Rodger’s shoulder. “Took your mother to the nicest restaurants around town on smokers’ money.”
“Why’d you quit the railroad, Dad?” Rodger insisted, tugging harder on a fistful of sleeve.
“It wouldn’t do, son. An engineman leaves his family alone too much. Made a promise to your mother that I would get my degree and find a family man’s job.”
Today, time stopped for Rodger as he walked along the sidewalk. Some of the old timers nodded. Unattended children, black and white, ran up and down the alley. Women swept concrete porches, or slouched on the steps. Rodger stopped in front of the stairway to the gym where he had trained under Big Red. Raymond Landmere. Creole. Olive‑skin and green eyes, with his auburn hair. Trainer of Kit Swenson, Jooeko, and Lefty Vine.
Thunder cracked. Rodger winced. Raindrops suddenly pelted him, making him blink. The old gym was open. He climbed the stairs.
He’d always known something was different about Big Red, something not quite white.
Nigger. Rodger hadn’t wanted it to be true. But he knew, he knew from the first day.
He hadn’t been pleased to meet Big Red that first time, just a kid of ten. One thump from that big man, and Rodger might as well have kissed the good earth good‑bye. But it had been Rodger’s introduction into the world of men. Real men.
Big Red had spoken directly to Rodger.
“First, ya gotta learn balance and feet positions.” He’d sized up Rodger like an artist would a landscape. “Can ya jump rope?”
“No! That’s sissy stuff!” Rodger had bellowed, and then had noticed, too late, several men skipping rope, crossing and uncrossing it, hopping twice on one foot and double‑timing without breaking rhythm.
Big Red had howled in amusement. “First thing, boy, ya got to get good eyes. Get ya observing what’s going on around ya. Then ya make yar move.”
Rodger followed the familiar path into the main gym where the ring and punching bags were. Several boys down on the mats labored doing push‑ups, just as he had done for Big Red. Rodger walked over to the ring and watched two guys sparring. He watched their feet, betting the one in black trunks would take a fall.
Big Red had worked him hard all of the time. Rodger had bought gym clothes and shoes and started running two miles in the morning. Ada had washed and mended his clothes so that his mother wouldn’t find out.
The young man in black trunks stumbled. The man in the red trunks swung wide and missed his mark. Rodger chuckled; thanks to Big Red he never would have made that mistake.
“What we gonna do today, boy, is dance,” Big Red had boomed. “See these here guys? They’re shadowboxin’. Look at their feet.”
Rodger had stared obediently at two sets of feet stirring sawdust.
“See anythin’ different?”
Rodger hadn’t known what he was seeing.
“Put up your hands. Ya’re gonna defend yourself.”
Rodger had faced Big Red, doubling his fists, fear quickening his already furiously beating heart. Big Red had swung, missing Rodger’s left cheek. Rodger had raised his entire right arm, and Big Red had shoved the forearm, pitching Rodger backwards.
“Yar feet, boy! If ya ain’t on yar toes, the other guy’ll knock ya for a loop.”
The young man in the black trunks, stenciled with “MT,” caught the other man “JL,” with an uppercut, but JL stayed planted on his feet. JL in red trunks rallied, catching the MT in the black shorts off‑guard. MT skidded to the side, up against the ropes.
Rodger leaned over and whispered, “You should have danced.”
A stocky man, shorter than Rodger, suddenly appeared beside him. “What’s your business, mister?”
“Used to box here. I want to work out.”
“Jesus, man, I can’t send you up against these young men. They’re fast. And mean.”
Rodger threw back his head and roared. “Give me a week. I’ll take on the young man in the red trunks. Or black.” Rodger stared the man down. “Or both.”
“Pretty damn sure of yourself.” The trainer squinted, his leathery skin cracking around unfriendly eyes. The two men in the ring sneered. “All right, you’re on. Five bucks for use of the equipment.”
Rodger took out his wallet and handed the man a five-dollar bill.
“How early and how late?”
“I get here about five a.m. I leave whenever I feel like going home.” He shoved the money into his pocket. “Who are you, anyway?”
“Rodger Brown.” He extended his hand to the other man.
“Shorty Walker.” He eyed Rodger, and then snapped his fingers. “The Kid!” He cocked an eyebrow. “You had style.”
“Can I use a locker?”
“Hey, Reb! Show this man where he can hang his clothes!” Shorty waved over a young, muscular, black man who carried himself like a fighter—straight, sure and proud.
Rodger followed him, noticing the rippling, bulging back muscles glistening with sweat. Wordlessly, Reb pointed to the locker nearest the end wall.
“Thanks.” Rodger nodded as Reb turned to leave. “I’ll be seeing you around.”
Rodger flexed and tensed his arms, working out the ache in his shoulder. Twenty-four and an old man among these young bucks. He inhaled deeply of the sweat and blood odors of other men. He went to his locker and opened it, staring at the empty interior; he would have to shop for clothes today. He had better get a move on.
But he lingered, wondering whatever had happened to his friend and partner, Manny. He and Manny had been so tight. All in training for the Big One, the Golden Gloves. Damn, they hadn’t even been aware that Big Red had had his own problems. He never showed any concern for himself.
One morning had been an omen of change when Manny had given Rodger a run for his money. Manny had been in control, coming into his punches and blocking the frontal strikes. Rodger had tightened up his elbows, drawing them into his body like Big Red had taught him. He had dodged Manny’s superior left hook and planted a firm, right jab for a knockdown. Then he had pulled off his helmet and given Manny a hand up just as Big Red had leaped into the ring.
Big Red had grabbed Rodger’s gloved hands and brutally jerked them together so that Rodger’s shoulders curved.
“Save the good posture for church.” Rodger had just stood there staring. “If Manny had been that much faster,” Big Red’s fingers snapped under Rodger’s nose, “he’d a plowed ya under. Hunch them shoulders. Keep them fists up.” He slapped at Rodger’s elbows. “You gotta remember what I say if ya want the Golden Gloves, boy!”
Manny had edged over to the corner of the ring, standing with his arms folded across his chest, watching Big Red and Rodger. When Big Red had climbed out of the ring, Rodger moved over to stand beside Manny.
Manny playfully punched his shoulder and winked. “Woman trouble, I bet.”
Rodger had never seen Big Red with any women. And to think he had been Dee’s mother’s husband! He had idolized Big Red. It could have worked so easily, with Big Red loving Katie Simmons and Rodger loving Dee. The memory of Dee, though he could not recall her face in detail, awakened a longing in him. To right old wrongs. He looked around the locker room, a world of its own right and wrong. He slammed the locker shut. Taking out the government envelope, he sat on a bench and tore it open.
Orders. He was reassigned to Kelly Field, San Antonio, Texas. As an instructor. Carefully, he folded it and put in his shirt pocket. He tapped his pants pocket, reassured at the feel of the jeweler’s boxes; the ring for Adele and gold chain with Mary Elizabeth’s bead for Jonelle. He had made no promises to anyone—yet.
As he retraced his way from colored town to Fazio’s, the only department store in Wilmington, he thought of all the immediate tasks he must do. He left the store forty minutes later, and headed for the Longhorn Bank, swinging the sack with his new trunks and shoes and the rest in time with his steps.
He stood in line, waiting for the older teller, Alice, to beckon him forth. She did not recognize him at first, but the second time she peered over her half‑bifocals, she gave out a little surprised shriek.
“Rodger Brown!” She grasped his hand in her wrinkled one, the rubber finger stop pressing wetly into his skin.
“You don’t look a day older than when I left, Miss Alice!” Rodger leaned into the window, close to her ear. “Thought I’d stop by to say hello.”
“I’m so glad you did! Just a minute.” She pushed him away, shutting the window and moving down at the end of the teller boxes. “Come on back here and sit a spell with me.”
Rodger followed her to his father’s unoccupied desk. She motioned to the chair behind the desk. He sat, easing his package down onto the floor.
“My, I’ve heard so much about you, Rodger!” Miss Alice clapped her hands together, oblivious to the blackened rubber finger. “Your father was very proud of you. It’s so sad he couldn’t have seen your little girl.”
Rodger blushed, thinking how fast news travels in a small town like Wilmington. He took a pen from the stand and played the quill feather through his fingers. “Did you ever marry that rogue, Mr. Crane?”
“Mercy, no, Rodger! He was just a gentleman friend.”
Alice touched her hair self consciously and Rodger knew she was pleased he had remembered.
“Still winning first prize at the fair for your blackberry jam?”
“Well, few years ago I did. But with the war and all, things have changed around here.” She peered over her shoulder at the line forming in the bank’s lobby.
Rodger cleared his throat. “Mind if I use Dad’s old typewriter? There’s a letter I need to get out.”
“If you wait, I can type it for you on my break. It wouldn’t be but a few minutes.”
Rodger opened a bottom drawer and took out two sheets of his father’s embossed stationary.
“I can have it done in a jiff, Miss Alice. If it’s all right?”
“Oh, my, yes! Come see me before you leave.” She jumped up and hurried back to her box.
Rodger scooted the chair over to the Underwood manual typewriter and, using his first and middle fingers, pecked out a formal request for a transfer. He addressed the envelope and sealed it. Pushing his heels along the carpet, he maneuvered the chair back in place, quietly shut the drawer, and picked up his package. He stood in line again until Miss Alice waved him forward.
“All done. Thanks. Drop by the house and see the baby.”
“Do you have a name for her?” whispered Miss Alice.
“Jonelle.” He restrained her with an upraised finger. “Just Jonelle Brown.”
“It’s a very pretty name.” Miss Alice slid a stamp toward him. “I’ll mail it for you tonight if you leave it with me.”
“You’re a doll.” Rodger winked and gave her hand a pat. “See you soon, Miss Alice.”
For the exercise, he took the long route past the cemetery before heading home. He noticed his mother’s car parked by the gate. He hesitated, torn between the solitude of his own house and his obligation to his mother. He found her by the grave.
Madeline turned to him, dry‑eyed, as he came by her side.
“I’ve taken care of the head stone,” she said. “You can cross that off Carrie’s list. Did you open that letter yet?” They stared at one another in silence until she pointed at his package. “What have you got there?”
“Boxing trunks and stuff. Got to get back into shape.” He cleared his throat. “Got my orders.” He pulled a cigarette from the pack and lit it. “Stateside for a while.”
Madeline nodded, pleased. Then she frowned. “Is it necessary to go,” she motioned toward colored town, “back there?”
“Yes.” Rodger stepped closer to his father’s grave. He thought of the night he had won his first smoker.
He had gotten a cut over his eye. As his father’s large hand had smoothed over it protectively, Rodger had boasted, “That redneck lasted only a minute in the third. I took my eyes off of him only once.”
His father’s face had crinkled in amusement. “Want to play a joke on your mother? She’ll find out about you in the ring tonight for sure. We might as well be the first to let her know about you boxing.”
Withdrawing a thick, heavy-lead pencil and a long string of cotton, his Dad had worked on the eye. Then with some tape and a little purple ink on his cheek, Rodger had worn the magnificent appearance of a battered man.
“I’m gonna tell her it was a nigger that wamped me. That’ll get her going.”
His mother had played her part as well as any actress. She had screeched her face a wrathful red, lunged forward and shaken his father’s coat sleeve with the evangelical strength of an outraged missionary.
“John Brown, you stop this savagery once and for all! I’ll not be humiliated and the family name dragged through the bars and mouths of every common laborer and nigger. Do you understand?”
His father had given away the joke first, unable to hide his grin. Mid-sentence, Madeline had stopped and turned to Rodger. He had pulled out the packed cotton from inside his mouth, slowly balling it up in his hand. He had pressed the wad against his cheek and wiped off some of the mask.