Ada lagged behind Rodger and his uncle as they left the ticket window to go outside and wait in the boarding area. The platform shook as the ten‑o‑five came rumbling in, on time. Rodger nodded, satisfied, and pocketed his father’s railroad watch. Dust whipped through the air as the passenger train came to a noisy halt.
Rodger clapped his uncle on the shoulder.
“Be a while before I see you again,” at once regretting Kyle’s departure, but weary of his advice, “so take it easy, old man.”
Kyle threw an arm around Rodger’s shoulders and spoke confidentially into his ear.
“Remember what I said about the three kinds of heroes?”
“Yeah, the scared, the quiet, and the showy ones.” Rodger thought of his dad, his self-confidence all these years, knowing what he was about.
“Well, there’s another kind. The military man. Not the glory hound or fighter jock. This man’s intelligent, capable, and above all else, loyal. To a fault. No mountain too high for him to scale or a war too far away. He walks along the edge of an abyss and dares man or God. He’s the man the Greeks immortalized.” Kyle sighed, dropping his arm from Rodger’s shoulder.
Rodger kept his face expressionless. Kyle frowned at the ground.
“Reconsider going overseas, son. You’ve done your duty.”
Rodger smiled. “You’d better say good‑bye to Ada again. Never figured you for a love‑’em-and-leave‑’em kind of guy.” He went and sat on a bench as Ada met Kyle.
Ada gave Kyle a sisterly hug. But Kyle’s hand reached and held Ada’s, prolonging the lovers’ moment. Rodger looked away. Seeing Kyle and Ada together made him a little uncomfortable, yet it hadn’t surprised Adele at all.
He made a fist and pounded lightly on the wooden back of the bench. There had been so many little things that got to him. Perhaps he’d been away from home too long. He’d felt a keen disappointment with his uncle, the only man left in the family who should have understood his position. He closed his eyes, letting the sunshine warm his face. Ada had said his father had given him wings; it seemed lately everyone wanted to clip them.
When he looked over again, Ada was standing alone. Kyle waved from the window as the train pulled away. Rodger jumped up and walked briskly to Ada’s side. Thank God she didn’t cry. He reached for and squeezed her arm.
“Want a cup of coffee at Joe’s?”
Ada nodded. “We shouldn’t be too long, though,” she peered at him, “if you’re serious about remodeling that kitchen. Adele said she would be at the house by eleven‑thirty.”
“Of course, I’m serious, that’s why I bought all the material,” Rodger retorted, leading her by the arm to the car.
“And left it so that I have to climb over it every time I go out the back door.”
As Rodger eased onto the car seat next to Ada, he pitched his head backwards toward the depot.
“I’ve lost the only ally this side of the continent.”
Ada’s laughter blended with the purring of the Chevy’s engine. “It must be hard living with women.”
Out of habit, Rodger scanned the sky above and over each shoulder before he released the brake. “I find salvation at the gym.”
Ada watched him. “Are you doing well?”
Rodger parked the car at the diner and grinned at her. “Better than I thought. I’m in great shape, and it’s all still there.” He squared his shoulders. “Those two kids don’t know what they’re up against.”
Ada’s lips drew thin. “Do you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you trying to prove something?”
“That I haven’t forgotten.”
“I don’t expect you’ll ever forget much, Rodger.”
Ada slid out the door and walked unescorted into the café. Rodger followed her and sat across from her at a table.
“Miz Ada,” the proprietor scurried beside the table, nodding respectfully at her. “Rodger? Is it really you?” The small man’s eyes bulged comically. “Sure good to see you back, son.” Joe beamed. “Home for good, son?”
“No, leaving soon.” Rodger shredded the paper napkin along the edges. “Just coffee for us.”
“Right up. Fresh pot, too.” Joe wiped his hands on the white apron as he left.
The silence stretched between him and Ada until Joe slapped the cups down in front of them. “Now, you come round and see me while you’re here. Talk about the old times.”
“I will, Joe. See ya around.”
Another customer came in and sat at the counter. Rodger recognized Mr. Tollsend, the president of the Longhorn Bank. He nodded to Mr. Tollsend, then faced Ada.
“Offered me a job last week.”
Ada stirred her coffee, although she hadn’t used either sugar or cream.
“Have you considered it?” Then setting the spoon alongside the cup, she added hastily, “The pay would be good. Adele and Jonelle would be happy here.” Her forehead wrinkled. “And, Rodger, you’d be good at a management job.”
Rodger lowered his voice, “I told him I’d think about it. But,” he recoiled, “I’d never fit in, Ada. You know that. Maybe I’ll go to college on the GI bill. There’s a future in airplanes for commercial use.”
Rodger scratched the bridge of his nose and leaned onto his elbows, close to Ada. “It’s gonna be a hot ‘un today, Miss Ada. A real scorcher. Maybe me and the wife’ll go on down to the creek for a spell and let the kids catch ’em some crawdads.”
Ada bit her bottom lip to cover her smile. “I’ve missed your incisive comments on our small town ways.”
“Commentator, that’s me.” He slurped his coffee. He held up a hand and ticked off his fingers.
“Weather, kids, family; or family, kids, and weather.”
Ada paused, the cup halfway to her lips, then replaced it without sipping any coffee. “Perhaps there’s a reason to think about one’s family. There’s safety in the familiar.”
“Safetytown, U.S.A. It’s what the damn war’s all about.”
“No, Rodger,” Ada gazed at him evenly, “that was World War I.”
Rodger drummed his fingers on the table. “Adele seems to like it here.”
“She’s the kind of woman who makes her own life, Rodger.” Ada gave him a little smile. “She’d adapt in the Mojave Desert.”
Rodger played his napkin corner back and forth. “I think it’d be a mistake to move her out to Texas with me. I might not be at one base too long.”
Ada shook her head, negating him. “You’ll have to give yourselves time to make happiness. Get used to one another.” She slumped back against the chair. “All this week you’ve been working frantically. Have you ever heard of a carpenter wasp?”
Rodger chuckled. “I feel a parable coming on.”
Ada continued, ignoring his remark. “Carpenter wasps are the most intelligent species of either bees or wasps. They cut tubular nests in wood. The males die during cold weather, but the females live on to start a new colony.”
Rodger draped an arm over the end of his chair. “So I better finish this project before the first snowfall?”
“No, I just brought it up so I could get around to asking what’s bothering you.” Ada chipped at the tabletop with a fingernail. “I remember you when you were younger. Always attacking the yard work before a big game or fight with the vigor of a man possessed.”
“Maybe I am possessed.” He tried to figure out what Ada wanted from him. She had loved Sam and Uncle Kyle. Not exactly the kind of men who were root‑bound. “This town’s too small for me.”
Ada turned her head and looked out the window. “There’ll be changes. Just you wait and see how fast this town changes, Rodger. It’s in the air. And perhaps,” she twisted back to stare directly at him, “you’re part of it. Rachel talks about going to college, maybe getting into medicine. A career! And your mother encourages both girls to think about a college education and a career.”
He pondered that for a moment. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” He pulled out his wallet and laid the dollar across the check. “This’ll cover it.”
Standing by the car, he pulled himself into a long stretch. Ada cocked her head to one side. “Your shoulder healed fast.”
Rodger hunched his shoulders, then pushed them in small circles. “Been working out every day. Makes a difference.” He paused, and she stopped beside the car. “If you want, I’ll go with you to the cemetery and tend Sam’s grave. Anytime.”
Ada’s face set, a sad mask of her other self.
“No, Rodger. I’ve said my good‑bye.” She eased herself into the car, and Rodger shut the door. Ada rolled down the window and leaned out to speak to him. “When’s your match?”
He walked around the car, opened the door, and got in. “Friday afternoon.”
Ada nodded. She sat pleasantly silent on the way home. Rodger hummed. They spied Adele rounding the corner with the baby buggy at the same time.
She waved, hurrying over to them as they climbed out of the car.
“Whew! I feel like I’ve walked a mile!”
“Come in and rest a spell with a cold drink.” Ada gripped Adele’s elbow and led her to the steps. “Rodger can bring the baby and buggy up onto the porch for us.” Adele disappeared into the house with Ada.
Rodger bent over his sleeping daughter. The deep creases in her face had smoothed out, and she no longer looked like living parchment paper. She suckled in her sleep. He tapped her tiny fist with his forefinger. She stirred.
“Hey, doll baby,” he whispered, “it’s Daddy.”
Jonelle opened one sleepy eye and then closed it again. She yawned and threw her fisted hands into the air, arching her back. Rodger leaned in and scooped her up.
“Come out and see the world.” He sat on the porch step and propped her in his arms.
He wanted to say something important to her, like a father should to his daughter, but the words evaporated. Jonelle strained against his arm. Such a solid little creature. Her fine, dark hair might have been penciled in. He ran his hand over her downy head, letting his palm rest on the pulsating soft spot. She made strange, gurgling noises in her throat, neither crying nor demanding, as her head wobbled right and left. Suddenly, he thought of LinChing. He had always tried to do the right thing for Mary Elizabeth, just hoping his best was good enough. Rodger looked down at Jonelle. “That’s about all anyone can do, just his best.” Someone rustled behind him.
“Would you like a cold drink?” Adele poised the glass over his head.
“You wouldn’t dare do anything of the kind,” Rodger looked up, “because I am holding your daughter in ransom.”
Adele leaned down and kissed him on the lips. “I’ll pay, just name your price.”
Rodger reached for the glass. “You can’t afford it.”
Adele stepped down next to him. “Fred Hewling called this morning. Has a job offer, if you’re interested.”
“Nope.” Rodger chewed an ice cube. “I don’t figure on settling down here.”
Adele shrugged. “That’s okay by me. And baby.” She twisted a loose thread along the hem of her shirt sleeve. “Wherever you go, I’ll follow. It’s been like that since the dawn of time.”
“It’ll be best for you both to stay here for now, though.” Rodger slipped the glass down Adele’s bare leg. She jumped back. “Don’t know where I’ll end up.”
“You’ll stay stateside, won’t you?” Adele’s eyebrows pinched together. “You’ll be satisfied instructing?”
Rodger stared in front of him. Jonelle lay quiet in the crook of his arm. “Depends.”
“You’ve got a lot more to lose than just your life.” Adele’s voice hardened.
“And who doesn’t? Damn it, Adele, has it been so long ago that you’ve forgotten? Practically all the guys are married and have one or two kids. I’m nothing special.”
Adele massaged his arm. “You are to me.”
Rodger lifted his arm with her hand still on it and kissed her five fingers. “You make me that way.” He glanced at his watch. “I’ll work around here until four and then go to the gym.”
Adele sat down next to him, gripping his arm.
“Must you go through with the fight?”
Rodger cringed. “Of course. It’s not a big thing, Adele. Just a game to see who wins.”
She patted him. “I know. It’s just we haven’t been together much, even though we’re in the same place at the same time.”
“I’ll be back for dinner. Do you want me to swing by here and walk home with you?”
Adele plopped her chin in her hands. “You always slide the subject right on by me. Like fast pitch.” She looked at him from the corner of her eye. “No, I promised your mother we’d have dinner with her. I got her to change it to six‑thirty.”
Rodger rolled his eyes. “Wonderful.”
Adele wrinkled her nose and shrugged. “Rodger, she has good intentions.”
Rodger drank deep of lemonade. “This takes me back to when I was a kid.” He smacked his lips and Jonelle flinched. Rodger looked down. “Ada’d bring me something iced as soon as I got done with the chores.”
Adele reached over and took the baby from him. “Well, you got the reward before the labor today. Get busy.”
Rodger sprang up, dramatically pointing to Jonelle. “Who’ll protect this poor child from such a taskmaster?”
Adele slapped at his knee. “Holler if you need any help and I’ll make a note of ignoring you.”
They walked side by side into the house where Ada sat at her sewing machine, rubbing her arthritic hands together. She pushed her glasses against her nose and peered at the material in front of her.
Rodger stopped and pointed. “Whose?”
“Kathy Weatherling’s christening her baby boy this Saturday. I have to get it done.”
“Must be her second? Geez. We can come back tomorrow.” Rodger rinsed his ice cubes into the sink. “That way you won’t be disturbed.”
Ada pinned him with her unblinking eyes. “You won’t be interrupting me.”
Rodger threw off his shirt. He worked out by the garden, well into the afternoon, until Adele called to him to come and eat lunch. He wolfed down his sandwich then returned to the backyard.
As Adele tidied the kitchen, Ada returned to the sewing machine. Adele fed and rocked the baby asleep, then laid her down. She came out to where Rodger was sawing a two‑by‑four.
“I’m going to pull out a weed or two,” she dipped to one knee and tugged at a plant.
Rodger mopped his forehead. “I’m going to be working inside.”
Adele blocked his retreat. Rodger stared back into her probing eyes. If there were no words for it, there couldn’t be any conflict.
Adele started to speak to him, then turned back to the garden. “My timing seems to be off.”
In the kitchen, Rodger hammered steadily, enjoying the rhythm of the swing and smack and listened with one ear for the old grandfather clock. He had lowered one set of cabinets when the clock chimed three o’clock.
Outside, he could see Adele and Ada sitting beneath the awning talking. Rodger took a step back to the opened window and listened to snatches of their conversation.
Ada gestured at the garden. “… time and so much dying. He’s still reacting to all that.”
Adele shook her head vigorously. “No, it’s something else. He’s closed down. Away.”
He ran his hand along the underside of the cabinet, then turned and looked out the kitchen window at his mother’s house. Choices. He had to choose.
He had known long ago, when he had left for Chicago to fight in the Golden Gloves, that he’d made up his mind not to come back. That night before leaving, he’d gone into his sisters’ room and stood there for a while as they lay sleeping, whispering baby snores, and the moonlight streamed in from an uncurtained window across the beds. He had known that by leaving he would step across that threshold into another reality, the real world where he would be on his own. And maybe never come back home again.
He ran the cold water and washed his hands, fixing his stare on the upstairs bedroom window. His father had snagged him on the way out the door, asking if he could do anything for him. All Rodger had wanted was for him to be there, for the fight, for his big victory. But his Dad had commitments to the bank, and he was sorry he couldn’t make it to Chicago to see him fight. Rodger understood. Only too well.
He dried his hands on a rag flecked with varnish. He wanted to grab Adele, shout out loud and clear that he loved her. He loved their baby. But damn it, he was not the summation of their lives in this small town where he’d always be known as John’s boy, The Kid or a war hero.
Ada’s voice drifted through the still afternoon air. “And the military is his only opportunity for flying.”
“Goddamn planes!” Adele sniped. “He’ll never be unfaithful as long he has a flying mistress.” She twisted aside. “I loved to fly, but I guess it wasn’t my whole life.”
Rodger went to the window and watched the two women.
Ada leaned forward, clasping Adele’s hand. “He’s a man with direction and purpose. And I’ve a deep down feeling we won’t ever stop him from going where he wants.”
Rodger grabbed his shirt and buttoned it as he left through the front door to go to the gym. He shook free of strain as he walked along the sidewalk. Maybe Ada was right. Maybe this town would change. The unlit gaslights reflected the glaring sunlight. Rodger shielded his eyes as he searched the cloudless blue sky. Maybe it was the quiet that got to him.
He didn’t mind the curious stares of the youthful men in the gym training beside him. Like during a preflight check, the adrenalin began flowing, and his mind focused sharply on the mission ahead of him. Every day, the two younger men were there sparring in the ring or working the bags. Rodger skipped rope, eyeing Reb and his friend as they jigged in the ring.
He offered to spar with a thin Negro boy who never spoke. Rodger liked this dark‑skinned, morose kid, who took it all too seriously. Rodger was huskier, but moved lightly on the balls of his feet. The long arms of his opponent stung with well‑placed punches.
Rodger held back. Whoops and hollers for the Negro echoed around the gym. It was always like that, people not really knowing what’s behind the obvious. Big Red had warned him early on never to show his style in the prelims. Like a good poker game, leave ’em guessing. He fended off an onslaught of fists but took a jab in his middle. At the end of the third round, their time up, he slipped off the gloves and extended a hand.
“Good show, kid.” The young man returned the handshake. Rodger waited for him to say something, but he didn’t speak. As they separated to go to the showers, Rodger noted with satisfaction that the men clustered in two groups placing bets on tomorrow’s fight.
He left amidst snide remarks and jeers of his hometown crowd, satisfied that he had them right where he wanted them.