Madeline had pointed to the dinner plates on the table.
“Eat your supper.”
She had left them and gone to her bedroom. From upstairs her disembodied voice rang out sharply.
“Clean up after yourselves.”
Rodger had watched his father, wondering all the while why he had wanted to make her mad.
Rodger knelt by the grave, smoothing out the dirt, then stood and spoke softly to his mother as she looked intently into his eyes.
“Remember how Dad always listened for the nine‑fifteen? Every night when the whistle blew, he’d pull out his watch. Then nod, and say, ‘She’s right on time.’ ”
Madeline did not reply right away. Massive black clouds gathered in the sky. Thunder rumbled. She looked away from Rodger, down to the grave.
“Your father was a man of habits.”
“He used to take me down to the train depot. We’d sit aboard an engine and take a short ride it in.” Rodger stopped short of telling her that it was the last time he’d gone to the train yards with his father that John had yanked him close and whispered in a low and fierce voice, as if the night had ears, ‘You do what you must, boy. Be it ditch digging or president of the United States. Don’t let anyone stop you. You do it honestly for yourself.’”
“He was a good father. And husband.” Madeline twisted her handkerchief into her hands. She stepped to Rodger and placed a hand on his arm. “You do his memory justice, son.”
Rodger understood this to be an order, not a compliment.
“Do you want me to drive you home?”
“Yes, I would like that.”
Slowly, they walked back to the car. Rodger opened the door and waited until his mother had slid into the seat, smoothed out her dress, and nodded to him before he closed the door. He flung the package in the back seat.
When he pulled into his mother’s driveway, he noticed that Ada’s porch light had been turned off. He retrieved his package and hurried into the house, hoping not to get caught by his aunt. Instead, Rachel bounded down the stairs.
“Don’t forget Captain Midnight!”
Rodger had forgotten and thought only of going home. He sighed. “I won’t.”
Madeline eyed him. “Stay for dinner. Six as usual.”
“I don’t know, Mother. I’m going to visit Adele.”
Madeline turned away and went into the kitchen. Rodger left through the back door, crossing the yard and coming through Ada’s backyard gate. He found her sitting on her patio, the kitten asleep in her lap.
“Rodger! I’m so happy to see you!” She continued stroking the little kitten as she motioned with her other hand.
“What have you got?”
“Boxing trunks. I’m going to work out at the old gym.”
Ada grinned. “Show the young bucks you still have it in you.”
“Better than ever!” Rodger dragged a chair next to hers and sat down, dropping his package onto the ground. “Ever hear anything about Big Red?”
Ada fiddled with the pins in her bun, trying vainly to catch the wisps. “No, nothing more since the night your father, Sam, and I helped him get out of town.”
She leaned over and squeezed his arm. “Awfully sorry about the way you were treated that night. None of us meant to ignore you.”
She eased back into her chair, realigning the kitten in her lap.
“I know.” As he pulled out the boxes from his pocket, “Look. It’ll go with all the silver jewelry I brought back from China for her.”
With an involuntary groan, Ada straightened up to reach over and touch the wide, silver band with five dark red rubies.
“Oh, how lovely!” She waggled her eyebrows. “Adele will be delighted. What’s this?”
“Mary Elizabeth put that in my rice dinner. On her twelfth birthday, she chose me as her future husband.” Rodger massaged his jaw, remembering. “Nearly lost a molar.” He took the bead and chain out of the box. “I bought this chain for it. Thought I’d give it to Jonelle for her twelfth birthday.”
Ada polished the chain with her fingers.
“A nice way of remembering.” The kitten stirred, stretching out its little legs, claws extended. Ada ran a hand down the length of its body. “Adele will surely love the ring, Rodger. So thoughtful of you.”
“I hope so.” He turned towards the garden. “Do you still do all the gardening by yourself?”
“Adele helped me a lot this year. Been sending a lot of produce to the ladies for the soldiers coming through Chicago.” Ada straightened a bit in her chair. “It’s a good excuse for me not to do housework.”
“But you still sew a lot, don’t you?”
“My livelihood, Rodger.”
“I remember the black silk boxing robe you made me for my seventeenth birthday. ‘THE KID’ in white satin letters across the back. Black satin trunks. I looked every bit the part of the Golden Gloves champion.”
He sighed. “I ripped a seam trying the old shorts on.” He patted his stomach. “I’ve gotten a bit bigger since then.”
Ada chuckled. “That you have.” She eased the kitten to the ground. He prowled around Rodger’s feet. “Will you have supper with me?”
The humidity of the June evening pressed sweat into his skin, making Rodger itch all over. He rose from his chair and held the door for Ada as she entered the kitchen, following behind her.
“Let me help.”
“No, you sit while I get us a simple supper. I’ll slice some cheese for sandwiches and make us some soup.”
Rodger watched Ada and noticed with sadness that her movements were slow and laborious as she sliced the cheddar cheese, and she grimaced when using the can opener. He jumped up and hurried to stir the simmering soup while she made the cheese sandwiches.
Rodger took plates and bowls from the cabinet and stood beside Ada as she ladled soup and slid a sandwich upon each plate. Deftly, Rodger placed a plate on his left forearm, another in his hand, then took a soup bowl with his right, leaving Ada only one bowl to bring to the table.
After several minutes of conversation about his day at the gym, Rodger lay his half-eaten sandwich down upon the plate.
“This is just like when I was a kid and used to sit here and tell you all about everything that happened at Big Red’s gym. Gosh, those were really the best times for me.”
Ada swallowed hard against the lump in her throat, not able to reply. She too, had been remembering, which made this moment so poignant for all that had changed in their lives. She watched Rodger finish the last of his soup and started to get up.
“No, I’ll wash dishes.” He collected the plates and pan and put them in the sink under running water. Brandishing the big, blue box of New Quick Lux Flakes he turned around to face Ada, mimicking Melville Ruick, the announcer on LUXRadio Theater.
…new Quick Lux Flakes…give you suds in a second.
So fast, well, it’s almost unbelievable.
You’ll think so, too, when you pour out these delicate sheer flakes…
He spun around and sprinkled the flakes vigorously, ruffling the water and continued.
Why, turn on the water and they bubble into suds like veritable magic…
Scooping a handful of suds he rubbed his hands delicately together while looking over his shoulder.
“Oh!” he squealed, “New Quick Lux Flakes leave my hands so soft!”
Ada laughed so hard she could only gasp, “Rod—ger!”
He arched an eyebrow, intoning in his deepest voice, “And it’s thrifty! And,” he shook a sudsy finger at her, “it won’t leave a soapy film after I’m done!”
“No, it won’t,” Ada took a big breath, exhaled with a chuckle, “but you still have to rinse the dishes with hot water.”
Rodger made a show of running the hot water over the bowl and turning it from side to side for Ada’s inspection. He placed it in the dish drainer with exaggerated flourish, and then resumed his dishwashing.
“What else do you do during the day?”
“I work a little at the hospital as a nurse’s aide. I used to be a nurse, a long time ago.”
The pan slipped from Rodger’s soapy hand and clattered onto the sink board. “You?”
Ada plucked a towel from a rack and began to dry the dishes.
“Before I was married to Steve I worked full time at the same hospital your baby girl was born in.”
Rodger surveyed the kitchen with a critical eye.
“These cabinets are too high for you. You know, it would be a simple matter to let them down a few inches.” He paced around the kitchen inspecting the cabinets. “I could start on it tomorrow.”
“Oh, Rodger! That’s sweet of you, but you’ll have your hands full with Adele and the baby home.”
Ada flicked the towel at him. A faint meow outside the door let them know The Kid wanted in.
“They can come over here or go next door for a while. I’ll ask Adele.”
Ada hugged Rodger, encircling his waist. “No hurry, Rodger. See how things work out.”
Rodger glanced at his watch. “Damn! I have to run to the hospital if I’m going to see Adele and listen to that … that crazy Midnight Captain with Rachel and Heather.”
He stepped aside to let Ada open the door.
“I think it’s Captain Midnight. And go along. Would you like to use my car?” She searched in her purse, dragging out a set of keys.
“No, I’ll walk.”
He pushed away her hand with the dangling keys. “I’m in training, remember?”
“Oh, right.” She snickered. “It’ll not take you long.”
“But may I use your car to bring Adele and the baby home?”
“Of course you may.” Ada checked the clock. “Run along, mister. Kiss Adele and the baby for me.”
He sprinted out the door then turned at the gate and shouted, “I’ll be back later for my clothes. After ‘Midnight.’ ”
His gait was easy at first; then he pushed himself against the wall of humid air, forcing his legs to pump harder. The image of the two young boxers cropped up intermittently with flashbacks of Big Red. He realized as the hospital came into sight that he had left the ring and bead at Ada’s house. He slowed to a walk. He could still do three miles without much strain. He’d be in shape in no time.
The nurses greeted him with friendly waves and smiles, and a nurse’s aid called out a cheery ‘Good afternoon!’ as he strolled down the hall to Adele’s room. Next door a cart with magazines, stuffed animals and books made Rodger flash back to street vendors in China.
“Hi.” He pushed open the door and went in.
Adele looked up with a welcoming smile.
He sat on the bed, pushing Adele with his hips. “Make me some room.”
She kissed and nipped his ear. “Anything for such a sweet talker.”
He kissed her nose. “Since you insist on going AWOL tomorrow, what time am I supposed to pick you up?”
“Be here at eight. That’s the earliest I can leave, they tell me. However,” she rubbed his upper arm, “you could abduct me tonight.”
“I walked here.” He stroked her side. “I’ll come back later tonight with a car.”
Adele chortled. “Would that I could, but I should not.”
She nestled into his shoulder. “The baby.”
“Oh, yeah. Her.” Rodger scratched his head. “Rather messy getaway.”
“Just be here bright and early, all right?”
Adele sat up. “After a week and a half, I’m damn sick and tired of this place.”
“If you’re sick and tired, this is the place you’re supposed to be.” Rodger tweaked her nose.
She slapped his hand. “Not a minute after eight!”
“Honey, would you mind if I remodeled Ada’s kitchen? I think it strains her to have to reach so high.”
“Why would I mind?” Adele wrinkled her nose. “I’ll, I mean, we’ll go with you and visit.”
She added quickly, “I know it’s not supposed to be done, but I think all that stuff about staying in the hospital for two or three weeks, then not seeing anyone for the first month is a lot of hogwash. I’d like to go to Ada’s for just an hour or so. But I don’t want her waiting on us.”
Rodger hugged Adele close. The sultry night air from the opened window made them sticky with perspiration. They lay in silence, listening to the katydids chirp.
“My folks got a call through from London. Daddy says Mother feels like she hasn’t done her duty by being here to help. I guess it’s really bad over there. Daddy says the tension is so thick between them at the embassy, you could cut it up and serve it for breakfast. They’d like to come out and stay with us. One day.”
Adele played her finger along the crease in Rodger’s pants. “Probably not until after the war.”
Rodger rubbed the material of Adele’s nightgown between his fingers.
“I’ve been stationed stateside. As an instructor.”
Adele held her breath, examining his face. He smelled her sweet, peculiar odor as she exhaled, “That’s wonderful!”
Rodger stared out the window at the fireflies. “I’ll be home for another three weeks.”
“We’ll find out in short order if we’re compatible,” Adele cooed as she pressed closer into his body. “I’ll wager we are.”
“Ada was gone all night. So was Uncle Kyle. Do you think there’s a connection?”
Adele giggled. “I hope so.”
“What?” Rodger pulled away to look into her eyes. “Would you wish to perpetuate this madness on perfectly nice people?”
“You bet I would.” Adele pinched his cheek.
“Ah, damn,” Rodger cursed, checking his watch. He swung his legs off the bed. “I promised the girls I’d listen to Midnight Maniac with them.”
“Captain Midnight happens to be a very serious program about a very heroic sort of man, my dear Rodger.” Adele crossed her arms and gave him a menacing face. “You would do well to emulate our national hero.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he retorted, clicking his heels and throwing a salute to her. “I’ll do my best.” He bent close to her face. “My very best.”
“I’m sure you will. But first,” she threw her arms around his neck, “prove your good intentions.” She kissed him.
“See you and the kid in the morning.” Rodger waved a kiss as he went out the door and down the hall, stopping at the nursery window to wink at Jonelle. Once out the main hospital door, he broke into a full run. He had to do as much as he possibly could to get into shape for that boxing match. Stay light on his feet and move, move, move all of the time.
As he passed landmarks, he thought of the many lives he had lived in this town, the many people he had been. He made it to his mother’s house with five minutes to spare. He walked up and down the sidewalk until his breath evened out.
The door opened and Kyle sauntered onto the porch, drink in hand.
“Uncle Kyle!” Rodger joined his uncle on the edge of the porch. “Buy you a drink after I sit through the radio program with my sisters?”
Kyle swished the liquor around and over the ice cubes.
“Sure, Rodg. If there’s any place open.”
“There is. You just have to know where to look.” Rodger clapped him on the shoulder. “You don’t look too happy.”
Kyle motioned to the house with the drink. “Stable full of nags.”
“You know what the problem is?” Rodger leaned closer to his uncle’s face. “Bored. They’re bored.”
The clock in the hallway chimed eight. Rodger paused at the door.
“Got my orders today. Stateside. Instructor.” He turned to the darkened figure sitting on the porch swing. “I’ve put in a request for a transfer.” Rodger stayed his hand on the door knob. “Don’t mention it to anyone.”
“I’ll be here,” Kyle clinked the ice cubes against the glass. “We can catch some action later.”
Rodger stepped across the threshold of the front door, veering for the stairs as he passed the living room. He nodded briskly at his mother’s frowning face and bounded upstairs to the bedroom before his Aunt Carrie could catch him with her concern. Rachel and Heather sat in front of the radio, silent in their eagerness not to miss a word of the program. The sound of a church bell and diving airplane and the announcer introducing “Capptainn—Mid-night!” swept Rodger along with his sisters into the fantasy of a mysterious pilot and his daring deeds. When the program ended, Rodger regretted having missed out on so many of the pilot’s adventures. He patted his sisters on the head.
“You’re going to have to keep a diary on Captain Midnight for me and send me a copy once a week.”
“Oh, yes!” squealed Rachel. “We will, won’t we, Heather?”
Heather nodded vigorously. “Is it just like that, Rodger? Don’t you fly just like Captain Midnight?”
Rodger chuckled softly. “Yeah, sport. I’m almost as good as Captain Midnight.” He started to leave, then turned to them. “Except for one thing.”
Rachel and Heather both looked at him with trepidation. Rachel grabbed for Heather’s hand.
“What?” she whispered.
“I hate Ovaltine®.”
He left them giggling in his mother’s bedroom as he took the stairs two at a time. He stopped momentarily at the doorway to the living room.
“Me and Uncle Kyle are going out for a while. Won’t be long.”
“Uncle Kyle and I,” corrected Madeline, looking as if she were about to protest, but Carrie turned and cried out, “Oh, Rodgie, I’ve hardly had a moment to speak with you! Won’t you stay a minute?”
“Ah, I’d love to, but honestly, there’s a man I have to see tonight. Already late.” He reached the door. “I’ll be around tomorrow. With Adele and the baby.”
Kyle stood as Rodger closed the door.
“Oh, damn!” Rodger slumped against the porch railing. “I forgot to get the keys to the car.”
Kyle started down the steps. “No, problem.” He pulled out a set of keys from his pocket. “Ada won’t mind.”
Rodger swallowed his surprise. He pushed off the railing, following his uncle to Ada’s garage. As he climbed in the passenger’s seat, he glimpsed Ada at the kitchen sink. She appeared to be smiling back at Uncle Kyle. He turned around quickly, embarrassed to have caught their exchange.
He pressed into the seat. “Uptown and left at the bank,” Rodger instructed. Kyle sped up. “We’ll haunt some old places that I won a smoker or two in.” Kyle grunted. “Introduce you to some of Dad’s old friends.”
“Met some of John’s friends once. Not that I would want to run into them in a dark alley.”
“Yeah, Dad had some interesting friends.” Rodger lit a cigarette. “Seems he had a split personality. One for men and one for women.”
“Self‑defense, my boy.” Kyle slowed, signaling left, and then turned off the main street into the heart of colored town. “You’ll learn it’s the only way to get along.”
“Maybe.” Rodger exhaled smoke hard from his lungs. “No more of these for me, that much I know.” He threw out the cigarette. “I want to play it good and clean. Not end up with half my life lived in regrets.”
“I doubt that John had any regrets,” As the car scraped to a stop along the curb in front of Joe’s Saloon, Kyle rammed the gearshift into park. “Maybe you didn’t understand the whole of it.”
Rodger popped the handle up, swinging open the door.
“I understood enough. Enough to know that he wanted me to be free of the life he had.”
Voices from the past hailed Rodger as he walked through the door. For a moment he considered that maybe he didn’t understand “the whole of it,” as Uncle Kyle put it. People that he thought he knew so well, he didn’t.
Men, black and white, moneyed and on relief, surrounded him. Rodger laid his money on the bar and ordered two drinks. Home for now and, for a little while, with no time for him to have regrets. He’d save that for his old age.