“I know, good knight, I know,” Adele murmured back. She dropped his hand and went back into the kitchen, leaving him and Aunt Carrie facing one another.
“Oh, Rodgie, how can you let yourself be beaten so!” Like a pampered squirrel, she nested into the chair, worrying her question.
“Don’t know. It’s funny, but you don’t even feel it,” Rodger gulped at his beer, “until later. It’s not as bad as it looks.”
“It’s bad enough. You should see yourself!” Carrie pointed at him. “Is that any way for a man of your age and rank to behave?”
“Only if I win, Aunt Carrie,” he grinned. “Then I’m the hero of the hour.”
Madeline appeared. “Would you kindly prepare for dinner?”
Rodger nodded to the girls’ room. “I’ll call them.”
Adele bustled into the living room, then up the stairs. “No, the baby’s asleep. I’ll bring Heather and Rachel down.”
He drained the rest of his beer. The uncomfortable silence in the room pulled at him like over-stretched elastic. He wished this part of the night over so that he could relax with Ada and Adele.
Dues. He had to pay the family dues.
Rachel and Heather ate side by side, sneaking glances at him. Madeline silenced them with a reproachful look before either could question him. Rodger put down his fork and wiped his mouth with a linen napkin.
“I’m curious whether Captain Midnight goes after those Japs tonight. Last night he almost bought it.”
Madeline slapped down her napkin. “Isn’t it bad enough there’s a real war raging all over Europe without a silly, make‑believe hero?”
His jaw tensed as he stared down his mother.
“I’ve known a dozen Captain Midnights, Mother. Real guys.” He pushed away from the table. “I’ll be back, girls. Warm up the radio.”
He let himself out the back door, walking up towards the riverside, pounding out his anger in every step. Over and over in his mind, he sought a way out from the endless arguments. He stopped by a sycamore tree and leaned against the rough bark, twisting his head back and forth, trying to ease the tension.
He bent down and picked stones to skip across the river, thinking of Tommy and the days they had played on rafts down here. The summer days he had fished. The picnics with Dee Simmons. Skinny-dipping. And making love on a woolen blanket. And a dozen things he had wanted to tell his father.
He flipped another smooth stone across the water, counting the ripples from three centers. Then he took his time strolling back to his mother’s house. He checked his watch. Just in time for Captain Midnight.
Adele sat on the edge of his mother’s bed, nursing Jonelle as Rachel and Heather hovered around the crackling radio. Rodger leaned over between his sisters and twirled the knob until the announcer’s voice barked, “The makers of Ovaltine® sponsor the following program.” He sat cross‑legged in front of the radio with Rachel and Heather, engrossed until the very end.
He turned to Adele. “Now, radio, that’s a worthwhile past time.” He stretched, raising his arms. “I’m going next door to talk to Ada. Come with me.”
Like a startled katydid, Rachel jumped up from the floor. “I think I hear Ada at the door now.”
“Let’s go down and see her!” sang out Heather. Both girls darted out the bedroom and down the stairs.
“Jonelle’s finished nursing.” She handed the gurgling baby to her husband. “Go see Daddy. Here.”
With Jonelle on his shoulder, he led Adele down the stairs.
Madeline rushed over to Rodger and scooped Jonelle out of his arms. “Ada look! Don’t you think she has John’s eyes?”
Rodger swiped the baby out of his mother’s hands. Her eyes bugged out, but she didn’t make a sound. He presented Jonelle to Ada, who opened her arms to receive the squirming bundle.
“I…I think,” Ada stammered, “that Jonelle has your hands, Madeline. Her fingers are so long.”
Madeline bit her lip. She examined her nails.
“I hope she has Adele’s personality.”
Rodger gathered his bag in his left hand.
“I do, too.” He marched to the door, turning to see his aunt emerge from the kitchen. “And Aunt Carrie’s smile.” He held the door open for Ada and Adele to exit. “Good night, Mother. Good night, Aunt Carrie.” He blew kisses to his sisters.
“Thank you for dinner, Mother. The casserole was delicious!” Adele stopped by his side. “I’ll talk to you in the morning.”
Madeline looked to Carrie, who held onto a pie dish in her chubby hands. “Won’t you stay for dessert? Ada brought us a strawberry cream pie.”
Rodger nudged Adele with his elbow.
“No, thanks. Maybe tomorrow.”
Out on the sidewalk, Adele snatched his shirt sleeve. “Just what gives you the right to be so damn rude to your mother?”
He threw off her hand.
“She irritates the hell out of me!”
Adele put her hands on her hips. Ada went on into her house with Jonelle. Fireflies sparked the evening air. “Your mother is scared, Rodger. Try to understand.”
He tore the wrappings from a new pack of cigarettes, punched one out, stuck it between his lips, and fished in his pocket for a match. He lit the match and held it away from the tip of the Lucky until it burned half‑way down. “So now you want to play the peacemaker?”
Adele’s raspy breathing, timed to his own, linked them in an odd agreement. She pointed her finger at him, stabbing the space between them.
“You’re a brat.”
He batted her finger with his right hand. “You sound like a granny.”
She laughed. “Maybe I’ve been around them too long,” she jerked her head backwards, indicating the house. “To be truthful, I understand why they get on your nerves.”
He stepped to her side, clasping her about the waist. “Don’t start that nagging. That’s one of the things I loved you for. You never were a whiner or nag.”
Adele hugged him. “But, Rodger, you can’t get your way all the time.”
“Why not?” He flicked away the cigarette stub.
“Because!” Adele shot back. Rodger opened the screen as Adele pushed open the front door of Ada’s house.
Ada sat on the couch, pillows propping her elbows as she held Jonelle and sang a lullaby to her. She had a surprisingly deep and gravelly voice.
Rodger watched her stroke Jonelle’s cheek, seemingly lost for a moment in the mystery of the baby and her song. Adele waited for Ada to finish the lullaby before picking up Jonelle.
“I’ll feed her once more, and maybe, just maybe the walk home will put her asleep for the whole night.”
Ada settled back into the couch. “Don’t count on it. Those night feedings might go on for another month or more.” Adele padded down the hall to the bedroom, leaving Ada and Rodger alone. He drummed the arm of the chair with his fingertips.
“I could rig up your sewing machine so that it’ll be easier to use.”
Ada massaged her hands, shaking her head so that her fine gray hair trailing from its chignon swayed like miniature streamers.
“You’ve done quite enough, mister.”
When Rodger frowned at her, she gave a dismissive a wave of her hand.
“Oh, all right. If you insist and have nothing better to do with your time, I’d be pleased to have you do it.”
“I have the time.” He avoided her eyes, until he could stand it no longer. “What’s the matter?”
“You.” Ada inched closer to him. The fine material of her flowered dress stretched taut against her bosom. “Tell her the truth, Rodger.”
He bolted upright. “Goddamn it! Why is everyone ragging on me?”
Ada pursed her lips. “It’ll not be right between the two of you if you keep secrets.”
“I don’t keep secrets.” He stared fixedly at her.
“I’ve known you too long, Rodger, not to know when you’re hiding a piece of the puzzle.”
He blushed, remembering how important it used to be to him to put in the last jigsaw puzzle piece. Ada never scolded him for keeping it in his pocket for a day or two, but she always made him put it in, finally.
“I have to go back,” he lowered his voice. “I have to square things for Mary Elizabeth.” He leaned down and smacked the kitten as it leaped for his shoe. “I have this dream. Every night. Running away from Mary Elizabeth and LinChing as they stand in front of the mission, begging me to take them home. Only there’s no home.”
The kitten sought refuge in Ada’s lap. She petted it absent‑mindedly.
“But Jonelle…,” Ada’s voice cracked.
Rodger searched Ada’s loving face.
“She’s in good hands.” He looked away, out the window at the dark shadows of the leaves on the tree. “I’ll come home.”
Adele came out of the bedroom, Jonelle asleep on her shoulder. Rodger hurried to the buggy by the chair and wheeled it over to Adele. Ada smoothed out the blanket, her hands working around Adele’s as she lay the baby down. Rodger propped the door open and took the buggy down the steps onto the sidewalk. He waved to Ada as Adele hugged her goodbye.
Adele hopped to catch up with him, clutching his hand as they walked side by side. The wheels of the buggy squeaked. He sighed as they came upon their brightly lit porch.
“Must cut the grass in the morning,” he said as he opened the door.
Adele pushed the buggy indoors. “Let’s just take it easy tomorrow, honey,” she pecked his sore cheek. Rodger winced. “Oh, sorry.” She went to touch it, but he pulled away.
“I’m tired tonight. Are you?”
“I haven’t boxed in the ring,” Adele faced him, the tartness of her voice betraying the comfort of her words.
“What is it you want from me, Adele?” Rodger crossed his arms and leaned against the wall.
“I don’t know,” she paced in front of him, wringing her hands. “Maybe that’s the question I should be asking you.”
“Jesus, Adele! I want you to be happy. The baby to be happy.” He chewed his lip. No, this wouldn’t wash; she wouldn’t be compromised with a vague truth. “I don’t know. Something inside of me.”
“What? Losing your father? Sam? Mary Elizabeth?”
“None of that. All of it.” He closed his eyes. “I thought today about how LinChing busted his bones to do the right thing all the time. On top of those planes like he was personally responsible for them, he had his kid, too. Trying to do the right thing.” His left cheek and ear throbbed, shooting pangs along his neck. “You’re on me lately about every damn thing I do.”
“I want you…you,” she stumbled over her words, “to want to stay with us.”
“It wasn’t my idea to start this war.” He watched her through slitted eyes.
“No, but it seems to be your game.”
“I’m a flyer, honey. You knew that before we married.”
She sighed in defeat. “I know. I guess I thought because I changed after having Jonelle, you would, too.”
He grabbed her by the hands and embraced her.
“I’ll always provide us a good home and be a great daddy. You wait and see.”
Adele hugged him hard. “I’ll be here. I’ll wait.”
“And,” he pulled back to look into her eyes, “I’ll bring you more silver, marble and silks from China.”
She stared long and direct at him. “Just bring yourself back in one piece, mister.”
Soft mewing sounds came from the buggy as Jonelle awoke.
“There, there, hush, hush,” Adele cooed as she lifted Jonelle from the buggy and took her to the nursery.
Rodger watched them disappear into the room and then turned into the bedroom. He hastily undressed and crawled between the cool sheets.
He heard the sheets rustling and felt the warmth of Adele’s body when she climbed in bed beside him. She encircled his waist with her arms and snuggled into his back. Sleep enfolded him.
In the middle of the night, a pocket of coldness where Adele should have been shocked him awake. He listened for her above the pounding of his heart.
She moved through the hallway, to the door and paused.
“Rodger?” the alarm in her voice distressed him. “What’s the matter?”
He sat on the edge of the bed, cradling his head in his hands.
“Nothing. Come to bed.”
She slid in behind him, hugging his shoulders, pressing her face against his back.
“Are you in pain?”
“No.” He sat still, then turned and lay down, pulling her into his side. “I have to tell you something.”
Hiccupping cries pealed throughout the house. Adele sprang out of bed and ran down to the nursery. Minutes later, she returned with Jonelle nestled against her shoulder. Rodger reached over to the bed stand and flipped on the light, illuminating Adele’s face etched in worry. He patted the edge of the bed.
“Come here. It’s not that bad. And you probably know anyway.” Adele sat down beside him, and he put his arm around her shoulder, pulling her in a gentle hug, careful of the nursing baby. “I’ve put in for a transfer for China. The Flying Tigers.” He shrugged. “May or may not happen.”
Adele cradled the baby against her shoulder, patting her on the back and nodded her head in time with the taps. Jonelle burped, sighed and closed her eyes, whispering baby snores.
“Sooner or later, I knew you’d go back.”
“I want you to understand I have to go back.” He sighed, pulling her close to him and kissing her ear lobe. “You know, for God, motherhood, apple pie, and all that.”
Adele pressed her forehead against his.
“No,” she muttered, shaking her head back and forth. “For you, Rodger.”
She took the sleeping baby back to her bed. He thought he heard muffled sounds of Adele crying. He waited, his shoulders aching from being tensed.
She tripped into the room, dancing in front of him with her nightgown fanned in her hand, and pulled taut, her body outlined by satin. He watched, fascinated. She dipped and swayed, inviting him with a wave of her hand. He rose, accepted her hand, crushing his body into hers, moving in time with her undulating hips. Her eyes closed and her head tilted back, she parted her lips and waited for his kiss. He met her lips. They waltzed. He pressed his cheek against hers, thankful for this hour. In the light that cast their ghostly shadows about the room; all else forgotten, they danced.