Rodger leaned against the wall, enchanted by Adele’s swift and graceful movements as she crammed her few things into the suitcase.
“Doc Adams may have released you, but the nurses aren’t happy about you going AWOL.” He compressed his lips to keep from smiling.
“Honest to God, Rodger, one more day in here and I’ll be ready for the loony bin.” Adele poked a hairbrush into the pile of clothes and snapped the suitcase shut. “I give Doc Adams credit for being a practical man.”
“Doc Adams, hell. I charmed the head nurse.”
“I’m ready.” She spun around in a full circle, flinging out her arms. “Bring the wheelchair! Present the child!”
He cocked an eyebrow, then bowed at the waist. “Your Majesty.”
“That’s the kind of treatment I deserve.” She sat on the bed and waved her hand grandly, indicating the floor in front of her. “Husband.”
He knelt before her, enjoying her wide-eyed surprise. She smoothed her hands down his cheeks, closed her eyes, and bent to kiss him on the lips.
When she opened her eyes again, he presented a ring box in the flat of his hand. Slowly, he opened the lid to reveal the silver band inlaid with Burmese rubies.
“Oh,” she whispered.
As he freed the ring from the groove, he caught her hand in his and kissed each knuckle.
She cradled the band in her palm, turning it over and over, puzzling over the inscriptions.
“Our wedding date,” she frowned, “but what is this other one?”
“What?” Rodger leaped to his feet, grabbing his shirt pocket over his heart. “You don’t know?”
Adele chewed her lower lip, the first finger of her right hand pressed against her nose.
“The first time I beat you at chess?”
Rodger pointed an accusing finger. “That never happened.”
“Oh.” Adele eyed him severely. “Only you would immortalize the first night we slept together!” But she laughed softly, and her eyes sparkled with tears. “Just what am I going to tell Jonelle when she asks?”
He looked at her quizzically, taking the ring and sliding onto her right hand ring finger.
“Why would she ask?”
Adele’s eyebrows puckered. “Rodger, she’ll be just like you; she’ll just have to know.” She examined her hand, her long, finely tapered fingers fanned out, hiding her face. “When it’s time to discuss the birds and bees, I’ll tell her she has to solve the riddle first.”
“Jesus, Adele, isn’t that a little ways down the line?”
“I guess so.” She beckoned him. “Come here, Sir Galahad, and I shall bestow upon you your just reward.”
He lost himself in the sweetness of her mouth when the door swung open and a nurse entered with a wheelchair. Rodger released Adele’s lips, kissed her nose with a smack, then broke away from her.
“Mrs. Brown, are you ready?” said the young nurse curtly, a reddening blush creeping across her cheeks.
Adele murmured, “Bad timing, nurse.”
The nurse glared at them. Adele scowled back at her. Rodger smiled and waggled his eyebrows then picked up the suitcase.
“Where’s the baby?” he asked innocently.
“She’s being brought by Head Nurse Williams.” The nurse gripped the wheelchair handles until her knuckles turned white. “Mrs. Brown, I have to ask you if you had a b.m. today.”
“Oh, yes, nurse, quite a nice one, thank you,” Adele purred.
Rodger frowned at Adele. She looked up sweetly, blowing him a little kiss. The door opened again, as the head nurse whisked into the room with the baby in her arms.
“Thought I’d give her a proper send off,” she said as she placed the sleeping infant in Adele’s waiting arms. “She’s a little spoiled, being the only baby in the nursery. All the nurses fought for a turn walking her up and down the hall.” She patted Adele on the forearm. “The poor child has to go home to get some rest.”
“I don’t mind if she’s been spoiled by love.” Adele stroked Jonelle’s cheek, then looked up at Rodger, her face radiant. “Home, good knight.”
“Follow me, pretty maids.” Rodger took the lead, sauntering down the hall, the women in silent procession.
He helped Adele from the wheelchair into the front seat of the car.
Rodger faced the nurse as she was backing the wheelchair away. Her guarded, green eyes, nurse’s cap and almost‑black hair pulled severely away from her face made her look as if she were playing at getting old. He had an impulse to pull off the hat and demand that she shake loose her hair. Instead he bowed slightly, addressing her formally.
“Thank you for your services, Nurse Nancy Radkins.” He shot straight up, his hand detaining the wheelchair. “You aren’t Tommy’s sister, are you?”
“Yes, I am.” She stopped abruptly, her bloodless hands still clutching the handles of the wheelchair.
Rodger pointed his finger at her. “Little Nancy.”
She blinked in surprise, then grinned. “Yes, and you’re Scrappy Rodger Brown, aren’t you? My, you’ve changed.” She studied him, her head cocked to one side. “Tommy’ll be in hog heaven when he hears you’re in town.”
“I’ll be damned!” He inadvertently looked down the street at the back lot of the high school. “Tell him to come by and see me!”
Nancy started to leave. “I’ll give him your address.”
“Oh, yeah, and my telephone number.” Rodger reached into a shirt pocket and took out a receipt from Hewling’s Hardware store. “Just let me get a pencil.”
Adele rolled down her window and flipped her hand out with a crudely sharpened, yellow pencil.
Rodger took the pencil and winked at her.
He scrawled quickly on the paper and handed it to Nancy.
“Thanks for passing this on for me.”
She pocketed the note and jerked the wheelchair around. Rodger waved, hoping he looked a lot friendlier than he had felt towards her.
He got in the car, sliding the pencil into Adele’s outstretched hand. “She’s still got a nasty disposition. Even as a kid she acted like everything was sinful.” He backed out, watching for cars. “I’ll bet she has a system for rating the degree of sin. Probably not married.”
“That’s a leap in logic!” Adele spat peevishly.
Rodger was taken aback. “I didn’t think you liked her.”
“I don’t. But that doesn’t mean men don’t find her attractive, even worth marrying.” The baby whimpered. Adele rocked her, looking intently into the baby’s face.
Rodger grimaced. “Let’s not fight about it, for God’s sake.” He turned the corner on their block. “My mother will be over with a casserole for dinner about noon.”
Adele sighed. “I’ll be resting. I’m not up to Carrie.”
Rodger chuckled. “She’s not a bad ol’ girl, Adele. She has good intentions.”
“And a good deal of petty ones, too.” Adele stopped rocking the baby and hugged her close. “She finds fault with everybody and everything.” Adele glanced sideways at him. “Except you.”
“That’s because,” he pulled into the driveway and shut off the engine, “I’m almost perfect.”
“Almost,” Adele smirked.
Rodger offered her a hand, and she grasped it firmly, pulling herself up from the seat of the car.
“What if I get more perfect with age?”
Adele squared off in front of him, nestling Jonelle close to her. The early morning summer sun shone directly in her face, casting an aura over her. “I’ll tell you on our fiftieth wedding anniversary if you made the mark.”
He leaned close to her face. “What if I make the maid and miss the mark?”
“Then you’ll just have to keep trying, my dear,” she pecked his lips and walked heavily to the door and waited for him to open it.
Adele lumbered through the house, naming the rooms for Jonelle.
“And this is your nursery. Small room, but maybe Daddy will add on later, Sugar Lumps.”
“In a few years?” Rodger poked his head around the corner of the door. “Or must I start today, honey?”
“Depends.” Adele stared at him coldly.
“On what?” Rodger pulled himself through the doorway.
“On when you’re home, for good.” She turned to face him. “I’d like to know.”
“I’m here now,” Rodger shrugged. “And tomorrow.”
Adele’s nostrils flared, but then her face softened. “Want to try your hand at fathering?”
“Hey! I’m a natural!” He made a cradle with his arms. He looked at his daughter for a long time before he could trust his voice. “She’s so tiny. I thought, somehow, she’d be bigger.”
“She’s big enough, Rodger,” Adele squeezed his arm. “You’re picture perfect.” She hurried out the room, retrieved her camera and snapped a flash. “You should have gotten a picture of me bringing the baby into the house.”
Rodger snatched the camera away from her, shoving Jonelle back into her arms. “So go pose.”
Adele had just simulated getting out of the car when Madeline and Carrie drove up. Rodger dangled the camera by the strap, observing the women. Adele smiled weakly at Madeline and Carrie, folding the flap of the blanket so that Jonelle’s face peeked out. Carrie, surprisingly fast on her feet, dashed over to Adele and the baby, leaving Madeline to struggle with the casserole and car door. Rodger hurried to lend a hand.
“Let me help, Mother.”
“No, thank you. I can manage.” Madeline thrust her hip hard against the car door, slamming it shut.
“Oh, my!” cooed Carrie, hovering over Jonelle. “Oh, Maddie, did you ever dream of such a lovely granddaughter!”
Madeline stopped before Adele, her mittened hands holding up the Pyrex dish.
“It’s Rodger’s favorite tuna casserole. I made it one time for you, too, and I remembered you liked it.”
“Smells delicious, Mother. Come along inside before your hands burn.” Adele found Rodger’s eyes and lingered a moment before she turned and walked stiffly into the living room. Rodger trailed behind.
Adele, holding the baby, sat in her chair, Aunt Carrie settled into the couch, and Madeline took the hot dish into the kitchen. Rodger leaned against the door frame, enjoying the late morning rays through the screen door. He massaged his neck, watching as Madeline came back into the room, wondering if Adele were going to relinquish the baby.
“New babies are so precious!” Carrie sang out in a high-pitched voice, which startled the baby, her tiny face lost in the wrinkles of her frown.
Madeline gave Carrie a scathing glance. “Adele, how are you feeling?”
“Tired. But I guess that’s normal.” She leaned back into the chair, ostensibly allowing Madeline a better look at Jonelle.
Carrie stood up and walked over. “Give me the baby and go take a rest. Why, between Maddie and me, we’ve got enough experience to raise an army!” Carrie’s greedy hands demanded the baby.
Adele looked at Rodger beseechingly. He could think of no way out and shrugged.
“I’ll go get some diapers and pins. What about a bottle?”
Adele reluctantly gave up Jonelle. “You can bring her in to me when she fusses.” She followed Rodger down the hall to the bedroom.
Rodger scowled at Adele. “I thought I was going to help feed her,” he whispered savagely.
“You can.” Adele tweaked his ear, “Tonight. She’ll take a bottle, too.” She flicked her wrist. “Don’t make the ladies wait, dear.”
He backed out as she closed the door on him, then he stomped into the nursery. He crammed diapers, pins and powder into a wad and took them into the living room. As he stood beside Madeline sitting primly on the couch, he fixated on his Aunt Carrie’s arms jiggling as she bounced Jonelle up and down.
“Carrie, give the poor child a rest.” Madeline took the bundled diapers from Rodger. “Let me see if she needs changing.”
Carrie ignored her. “Sweet little dumplings,” she caroled. “Are you going to smile for Aunt Carrie?”
Madeline rolled her eyes up to meet Rodger’s. “Babies don’t smile at this age.”
Rodger moved away from his mother to Adele’s empty chair. He stifled a yawn. The baby began to whimper.
“Maybe, Aunt Carrie, Jonelle needs a change.”
When Rodger met his aunt’s fierce gaze with a smile, she sighed pointedly. “Little lambkins, go see Grandma.” Carrie laid the baby down onto the receiving blanket.
Rodger suddenly thought of an airplane landing. An acute longing for the feel of the controls and the gut‑wrench of a take‑off struck him. He chewed on his lower lip.
“Would you mind if I took off for a while?” He looked directly at his mother.
Carrie patted the air. “No, now you just go about your business. Let us women tend to the baby.”
Madeline’s jaw tightened. “Collect your laundry, and I’ll see to it.”
“Couldn’t it wait a few days, for Adele and Jonelle’s things, too?”
His mother’s face set, and she tilted her head slightly. “I’ll see to their things in a few days, Rodger.”
Madeline stabbed a pin through the layers of diaper, easing it expertly over her unscathed finger.
Rodger peered over her shoulder, scrunching up his face at Jonelle. Her thin legs kicked the air. He wanted to hold her. His mother snapped the rubber pants on, then eased the gown down, and drew the string until the material puckered shut, then wrapped the blanket tightly around the baby.
“Isn’t that going to cut off her circulation or something?” Rodger reached to loosen the blanket. Madeline raised her shoulder, blocking his hand.
“Babies like to be wrapped snugly.” Madeline tapped the baby’s back with the palm of her hand. “Honestly, you’re behaving like a Nervous Nelly.”
Anger flared within him. He raised his hands. “Give her to me.”
“A little colicky is all,” Madeline continued, rubbing her back, refusing to give up possession. “Give Adele a chance to get a minute’s peace.”
“Mother…” Rodger leaned over, prepared to yank his baby from her arms, when voices coming from the outside interrupted.
Rodger straightened and went to the door. Aunt Carrie, her nose twitching, craned her neck to see out the door onto the porch.
Arms akimbo, Rodger watched as a young man in a gray shirt, sleeves rolled up exposing white arms and reddened hands, came lumbering up the sidewalk. A petite woman skipped to keep up with his long strides.
Who was this guy? So unlike his men. There was a casualness about the man that annoyed Rodger, a familiarity not earned.
The man came up to the porch, his face looming large and ridiculous with a full‑toothed grin. Then Rodger recognized his old friend and flung open the screen door.
“Tommy! Tommy, you old son of a gun!” Rodger clasped Tommy’s hand and Tommy pumped Rodger’s hand, wrenching his shoulder.
“Long time, long time,” Tommy threw back his head and chortled. “You’ve been mighty long away from this part of the country.”
Rodger slapped Tommy on the back. “You mean I ducked out on our last season game, huh?”
Tommy scrubbed his mustached lip. “We all wondered where you’d gone, Rodg. We won the homecoming game, all right.” He smiled lopsidedly. “But it wasn’t easy without ya.”
Rodger shook his head. “You guys didn’t really need me. I was just a one‑man cheering section.”
“Yeah, Rodg,” Tommy scoffed, “that’s why ya got all them trophies. For cheering us on.”
Rodger punched Tommy on the left arm. “You got your fair share. Always got a fair share.”
Those times of sharing, the long summer days and the years of school and sports. Their first razor rash and making it with a girl. They had shared it all, the stolen days of beer, women and victory songs.
“Man, we had some good times, didn’t we?” Tommy grinned as his face flushed red.
The oddity of Tommy blushing made Rodger chuckle. “Say, did you join up?”
Tommy sobered. “Remember our game against ol’ Cleveland High? You know, the one where you scored two touch downs and I got forty yards on one pass?” Rodger nodded, only able to recall it as Tommy replayed it. “Got knocked in the kidneys a couple of times. Anyway, I got what they call ‘Bright’s disease.’ Having to do with my kidneys.”
Rodger shivered inwardly. “Serious?”
“Neah, not at all if I watch my diet. And,” Tommy reached behind him, encircled the small shoulders of the red‑haired woman with his massive forearm, drawing her up to his side; she stood just underneath his armpit. “This little woman makes sure I eat and rest like I should. Meet my wife, Cindy.” Tommy leaned close, cupping his free hand beside his mouth. “Don’t let her size fool ya. She’s a real bearcat!”
Cindy elbowed Tommy in the ribs. “Don’t pay him any mind. Nice to meet you, Rodger,” she stuck out her hand.
Rodger shook it, surprised at her firm grip. “Won’t you come in? I think Adele’s resting with the baby right now, but I’ll look in.”
Cindy arrested him with a motion of her hand. “No, let your wife and daughter be. We came by to see you, for now. I’ve heard so much about you and all that I had to see you face to face.”
It was Rodger’s turn to blush. “Take everything Tommy says and cut it in half, and you’ll have a pretty good picture.”
“No, she’ll only have the half of it.” Tommy grazed Rodger’s wound with his fist. His face clouded with concern when Rodger winced. “What’s the matter, Rodg?”
“Old war wound,” Rodger laughed, rubbing the ache. “Nothing very serious.”