Ada dusted Rodger’s all‑star football trophy from his senior year in high school. She had tucked it away on the shelf above her bed, out of sight of any probing eyes. She paused, tracing the outline of the hand holding the football, wondering about Rodger. She wrote him long letters about Wilmington and those left behind, adding several postscripts about Adele and his sisters, Rachel and Heather. Ada touched her library book, A Farewell to Arms, thinking she should get Rodger a copy and lend this one to John. Lately John had been taken by surprise more than once when Ada brought up something Rodger had written in his letters. Even Adele did not hide her irritation that Ada knew more than she did.
Ada sighed. It’s not that she really had more of Rodger than they; no, not really. She just had that part of him she had helped free a long time ago.
The mailman’s shrill whistle sounded. Ada laid aside her dust rag, wiping her hands across her apron as she entered the living room, then caught her dangling eyeglasses and pushed them up onto the bridge of her nose as she stooped to retrieve her two letters. Both were postmarked from overseas. She had just received a letter from Rodger last week. A sharp pang hit her in the gut and she tightened her hands around the letters.
She stood before her curtained front window, watching the afternoon shadows on the sidewalk and trees. A breeze stirred the limbs of the sycamore, and they waved gently back and forth. Ada looked down at the letters, then outside, wishing she could delay the inevitable. She slowly tore open the top one, the thinner of the two. It was indeed from Rodger.
She knew, she knew from the first cramped “Dearest Ada” that he would tell her of Sam.
“Sam was killed during a raid here. I personally have taken care of sending him home.”
Sam dead. Sam coming home in a casket. Sam and her nevermore. For a moment she could not breathe, the pain in her heart overwhelmed her. She clutched at her throat, gasping; then the tears began.
Soon the afternoon shadows deepened. Ada watched John walking home from the Longhorn Bank, swinging his umbrella, the evening newspaper gripped in his left hand. His long, slender body moved smoothly when he walked, his wide shoulders always thrown back proudly. Ada saw clearly his unlined, handsome face with deep-set blue eyes, almost turquoise, that really seemed to twinkle. She wanted to cry out to him, to lean into his arms and sob on his shoulder. But the tears came again, and she bowed her head over the letters, the long, government forms that had to be filled out immediately, and the one from Rodger. Memories, unbidden and unwanted, tumbled around her head like weeds caught in a sandstorm. Finally, she closed her eyes and forced an image of Sam’s face that calmed the tumult. She had another memory, ten years ago, that belonged to her alone: the turning time of their lives.
Oh, how she recalled that day, down to the last detail! She saw it all in slow motion, a movie reel with the sound inside her head; she, the leading lady, and Sam, her leading man. Ada had walked across town, picking up Rodger’s sweaty clothes from the gym and the colored folks’ mending at the church. Then, as she had planned, she took a lunch over to the hangar where Sam kept his beloved Lucy. Spreading out the picnic lunch on the rickety card table, Ada waited for him to join her as she poured coffee from the urn in his office into his thermos.
Her chair scraped the concrete floor. Sam jerked his head around to look. Ada dusted her hands of the crumbs and, aware of his stare, drank her coffee with little sips.
“Sam, you always had a way with women. But,” she had teased, “your charms fall short of your coffee.”
“Well, hell, most of the time it’s just me and don’ pay no attention to how much scoops I’m putting in. If you’d tell a body when you planned on comin’, I’d have us a regular tea party.”
“Now, Sam, that would be entirely against my nature. Even might detract from my womanly charm. Why don’t you admit that you like me to surprise you once in a while?”
“Umph.” He shifted around to look at Lucy again. He folded his arms against his chest, his defense from her she supposed. After all these many years, there should not have been so many barriers between them, so many little misunderstandings. She had never even mentioned him to any of her relatives or friends, for what they were to each other was a habit, two people in the same place with time to spare for each other.
He had picked her out of a crowd at the fair, the first fair she had gone to after her husband and son were killed. It was the way the plane burst through the air, the noise and strangeness of it, that had drawn her to the field to watch. Barnstorming, is what they called it. Sam was giving rides to all interested paying customers. Ada had stood aside, observing, until the crowd had waned. Then, like a wild man, Sam had grabbed her hand and yanked her over to the plane where fumes pulsated with the dry summer heat.
She hadn’t said no; she couldn’t although she felt herself suffocating.
He was looking at her again. “You have the same look about you that you did the first time I saw you.”
Ada blushed, so close was he to knowing her mind. But it was like that between them, friends that had secrets.
“And what exactly is that “look” you’re always mentioning?”
“Well,” he fumbled, his turn to be embarrassed, “sorta like a critter that gets itself out of a pretty decent cage. It’s on the outside looking in, asking itself if it isn’t all a big mistake.”
Freedom. Perhaps he had seen her longing exposed in her eyes, her face, her body. Being around him and that damned Lucy always made her want to go places, other places with strange faces and exotic names. She closed her eyes to peek out of the slits, to narrow her vision of Sam and Lucy.
“Perhaps the worst sort of freedom, Sam, is the kind we don’t ask for.”
“You could have married again, Ada. You’re the one who preaches to me that there are many ways to love.”
“But the man I love, my friend, is not mine to have. I would rather not have the cake without the icing.”
“There’s more than one bakery you could shop in.”
Ada laughed. It was the longest conversation they had for in years. Sam was always on the move, in demand as an airplane mechanic now that his barnstorming days were over. For all his gruff and surly ways, Sam was a worrier. He wanted an ordered universe, a home town with seasonal changes and a woman friend or two. So little from such a demanding sort of man.
“How about you Sam? Did you think to buy the whole pie and not just a little tart?”
He growled at her, waving at Lucy. “I got me all the female companion and nasty disposition I need between the two of you. Now, it looks like I even got a kid to boot.”
Ada sat up straight. She knew, knew it as surely as the day was split into the bright blue of the sky and the green‑brown of the earth. She whispered, almost too afraid of being right, “Is his name Rodger?”
“Huh? Yeah, the kid that comes here and watches me work. You know him?”
“Yes. He’s a very special friend of mine, too.”
“I ain’t calling him ‘friend.’ Odd kid, in a way.” Sam glared at her once more, resting his face on his elbows that all came down on the card table with a soft plop. “He comes around for weeks, sneaking a look. Then one day he comes up to me, and I yell at him to get the hell outta here. Then he gets real brave and tells me he’s got to be around my Lucy.”
“And you told him he could stay.”
“Not exactly, Miss Smarty‑pants. He’s got to earn his way.” He leaned closer to her, and she bent into him. “Funny thing, about that kid. I got a feeling he’ll be a flyer, a good one. He listens.” Sam tapped the side of his forehead. “And he thinks.”
“What’s the point of encouraging him, Sam?”
“Ah, hell Ada! It’s just for fun. A man don’t know his future at thirteen.”
“Or at your age, either.”
Sam glared at her, but she would not back down. Maybe Rodger, too, sensed her disapproval. It alarmed her, the risks he took at such an early age, not for the usual reasons of showing off to his friends. She couldn’t trust Sam to discourage this nonsense. Rodger would be the perfect audience for him. Worse, she had to pretend she didn’t know about this until Rodger confided in her. She wondered if John knew; he couldn’t, or he would have stopped Rodger.
“Sam,” she spoke softly, drawing him back to her, “we’ve got one thing in common with married folks.”
“What the hell are ya talkin’ about, Ada?”
“Rodger.” The silence between them was peaceful, several quiet seconds flowing past them. “Take good care of him.”
“I will.” He replied so seriously that she had nothing to say back to him. They sat, drifting in the stillness of the sunshine. “Ya should have had more kids, Ada. A girl with your big brown eyes would have had the world at her feet.”
She smiled. “Doesn’t seem like they did me much good.”
“Ya kept them closed most your life, that’s why.”
Ada would not dispute him. She leaned back in her chair, tilting it off the ground. He figured her foolish in so many ways she wasn’t. She wondered if he would be less kind to her if he knew how she really was, how little she cared for the world.
It was the loss of her child, not the man she had married, that had left a hollow space in her heart. She had stopped loving Dan before Stevie was born. But the price of her freedom had enslaved her to her secrets. She no more could have stopped the reckless cabby from hitting her husband and son than she could turn back the hands of the old grandfather clock and say no to Dan’s marriage proposal. She knew that, she knew that. But it seemed such an ironic thing, a vicious stunt, like someone suddenly pulling the chair out from underneath you.
“Ya all right Ada? Ya look like you’re gonna cry. What did I say?”
“Nothing, Sam, nothing at all. Dust in the air makes my eyes water.”
She had to be more careful. She smiled for Sam, pouring them more coffee from the battered and smudged thermos. Sounds, the vibrations in the air of something distinctly familiar, caught both of them at the same time. Ada puzzled over it until Sam jumped from his chair, jabbing his finger up at the dazzling blue of the sky, shrieking, “I’ll be damned! Lookee there, Ada! It’s the Brown Mustache! Lookee up there!”
Still she couldn’t find the object, the sun blinded her. The noise intensified, then a small, rusty‑brown biplane swooped from the white cloud, down almost to the ground.
Sam wiped his hand across the top of his crew cut. His left hand jingled loose change in his pocket. The biplane was executing a series of loops, leaving cloud trails behind him. Suddenly Sam turned and clamped his hand down on Ada, pulling her roughly to her feet.
“Come on, gal. Let’s go chase a little tail in the sky.”
Dragging her over to Lucy, Sam quickly propped open the stepladder and shoved her forward, placing his hands firmly on her hips as she climbed into the back seat. Until she was actually seated, she did not think of saying no. She looked to the right and left of her as Sam pushed them in position so that he could taxi for take‑off.
It was a brilliant, sunlit day with a hint of fall’s breath. The beauty and warmth of the day pressed into Ada, and she relaxed against the back seat, pulling against the house dress until it covered her knees again. The trees began to whiz past them, blurring at the edges as Lucy’s engine yawned in noisy wakening. Ada jigged and bounced in rhythm with the singing wheels. Wisps of hair tickled her eyes, ears, and lips as she drew one long hairpin after another to catch and hold them to no avail. She dropped her hands to rest in her lap, resigning herself to the wind and speed and Sam’s skillful hands.
Snatches of earth colors and the intense blue of the sky mixed as Lucy dived and spun after the Brown Mustache. Sam’s Tarzan hollering would fade in echoes until Ada, forced by the driving wind, had to shut her eyes and be content to listen to the droning engine.
She no more understood why she was up there than she knew why she clung so to the habits of her life. She was young, still healthy at forty‑two, and reasonably well- provided for. Why didn’t she pack up and move somewhere, just for the change? Why was she allowing herself to be entrapped with all of this concern for Rodger? At the thought of him, she could picture his thirteen-year old’s face, so like his father’s. But it was Rodger’s smile that intrigued Ada, for that was all his own, neither John’s nor Madeline’s.
They were coming in for a landing, leveling out, momentarily suspended over the runway. Ada thought again of Rodger, his defiance as incentive for learning. And wasn’t it Sam who once said something about second love being the truest? True or not, she had known then she could never leave them. As Lucy settled onto the ground, Ada opened her eyes and regretted the ride had ended.
“Oh, my what a ride!” Ada exclaimed, throwing her back and laughing.
Sam’s not-too-handsome face was split wide in a clownish smile, as if he could not take enough air in, nor release enough laughter to fill the outside. The brown plane, easing gently away from their sight, waggled its wings, and Sam threw his arm up into a vigorous wave.
“Sam, I’d better get along home now.” They stopped beside the table. “Thanks for the exciting afternoon.”
“Oh, yeah. Ada, wasn’t it,…ah…well,” he faltered, spreading out his hands in front of him.
“Sam, I had a wonderful time.”
And she meant it. She packed things back inside the dented lunch pail. Then she unpinned her hair, shaking it loose, re-gathering it into a tight coil before jabbing the metal sticks back in. She swooped up her own bundles, smelling of Rodger’s sweat and the colored woman’s smoke. Sam was fussing with Lucy, his eyes frequently darting over to her. She pretended not to notice. Time pressed on her, and she quickened her steps. She brushed against Sam’s shoulder with her own, making him look up at her. She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.
“See you soon, Sam.”
Ada shook loose from the webs of those memories and walked outside. Standing there beside her weedless garden she scanned the rows, each one neat and orderly. There were early tomato seedlings and rows of corn sprouting green leafage, and her favorites, vining zucchini and butternut squashes. As much as she loved her small, fertile plot of land, there were times she felt guilty about it. She had not spent the necessary time tending it when she was a wife and mother. It was too much of a solitary thing, a not‑sharing, although the feel of the earth, the taste of its produce gave meaning without words. But it had been Dan’s garden first. Now it was hers, hers alone. The squash and radishes. The turnips. Little by little she had replaced his vegetables with hers. With her own loving hands.
The afternoon sunshine softened. The breeze was cooler, and though she might have been tempted to stay here a while, time pressed into a thing solid and heavy inside her. She moved away from the garden and went to the front of the house.
She collected the washing, laying aside the mending carefully so that it would not spill from the sideboard. She mentally ticked off each chore as she methodically began with the next one. At eight, the last of the sewing done, she pushed away from her machine, turned off its light, and stretched up, up to the ceiling, wiggling her fingers. She smoothed back her hair with both hands and stood listening to the night sounds.
She waited. Then after the minutes were tolled by the grandfather clock, she walked over to the radio and flipped on the dial. Music she did not recognize filled the hollow space of her living room. She left it to go into the kitchen and heat tea water. If she listened hard and didn’t clack the spoon, she could barely catch a strain or two of “When My Heart Was Young.”
She thought again of Rodger, when he had learned to box, her own unconditional faith in Big Red, Sam, and John.
Ada massaged the furrows in her forehead. “Damn this small town,” she whispered as hard as she could to dispel some of her bitterness, “May God give us the children to free us!”
There hadn’t been any time to explain things to Rodger about Big Red, Dee and Katie Simmons, the flight from the KKK. She had so much to tell him and so much she wanted to hear from him the night of the burning house.
Ada had had her secrets from Rodger. Hadn’t they all? Each one of them locked away some part of themselves. The day caught up with her. She turned off the radio. The echoes from the house and outside blended and Ada stood quite still and waited for the quiet to come back.
She was tired, but her thoughts, each like a painted carrousel pony, whirled around and around, images at once distinct, then blurred. She felt herself the spectator turned unwilling participant, but a sense of release came over her. Tears stung her eyes, recalling Sam darting about between her and Lucy.
Her involvement with Rodger had led her further and further away from the safety of her solitude. Day by day, birthdays and Christmases and special events marked the time, stopping it in segments of meanings. She could not close her eyes to what was, nor could she, admitting it finally, deny that odd mixed feeling of regret and happiness, that specialness of love lost and regained, was binding her tighter and tighter to Rodger. Now, at fifty‑six, where there had never been a future with John, and only moments with Sam, she could now have one with Rodger, Adele and the baby. They would be a continuation of her life, like it always had been.
“Habits,” she snorted out loud to hear her own voice, “I am bound to this earth by my habits.”
She carried her tea outside, again to stand beside her garden, and weep just a little for the loss of her beloved. Sam had substituted for John, her first, real love. And through him, with him, and by him, she had also loved Rodger. And that second love was the most precious.
The velvet black night, speckled with stars, wrapped its warmth around her. She stared intently at heaven until she saw a falling star.
“For you, Sam,” she whispered, “may your wings never fail you.”
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