Rodger wiped his wet face against his sleeve. Traces of Sam’s blood smeared his cheek. He looked at his friend’s body, so still, so calm, so dead. He longed to be up there with his men fighting the Japanese. If only Sam had had enough time to put together the guts of his plane! But there hadn’t been enough time. There was so much more to be said and done.
“Sam,” he whispered, “I forgot to tell you about Chicago.” The sky darkened, silhouetting the jigging planes. “Man, it was so strange. Big Red’s house burning down, and that damned effigy—not knowing if it was him swinging from the tree. My girl gone. Dee just took off without so much as ‘good‑bye, sucker.’ Winning the Golden Gloves became the most important thing in my life.”
Rodger crossed Sam’s hands across his chest. “I understand my father, I guess. I knew he couldn’t go along with me and Manny to Chicago. But I hated him for it. For sending Vern instead.” The bitterness throbbed in his throat.
“If it hadn’t been for Ada letting us drive her Chevy up there, I’d have run away. But you know, Sam, Ada and I are friends from way back when I was a kid. I love her more than my own mother.”
Like one of the old Tom Mix cowboy movies he had loved so much as a boy, the memories reeled forward for him to view dispassionately. His eyes fixed on the battle over on the night horizon as scenes with all of the right characters and dialogue played itself out.
He hadn’t wanted to leave like he did, his mother all upset and his sisters asleep. He remembered how he had crept into Heather and Rachel’s bedroom. Shadows from the full moon fell across their beds, and as he listened to their muted baby snores, he knew he meant to leave and not come home again.
Early the next morning, he left the house without good‑byes. He met Ada on her porch, and for a horrible moment he almost could not go. The last thing he had told her was about Uncle Kyle flying with the RAC in Africa.
Then he had kissed her, too quickly, on the cheek. Her parting words had been, “Show them what Big Red taught you!”
Vern Slater drove. Rodger and Manny would have ditched Vern once they got to Chicago, but Vern bird‑dogged them. He watched them sleep, eat, dress, spar.
Vern didn’t know his toes from his butt about how things worked at the ring. Manny took care of it, all the time reassuring Vern, convincing him to go back to the hotel and not wait up for them. Manny knew lots, knew parts of Chicago that the good boys didn’t. Rodger and Manny slipped out the back door and went to the joints to place bets and make deals.
The next day at the gym the throng of men moved as one body, voices pitching words like lobbed tennis balls. The other guy’s trainer, a heavy‑shouldered man with piggy eyes and greasy black hair, taunted them, trying to shake up Rodger. Rodger didn’t shake.
The press skittered around, asking questions of bystanders and trainers and boxers.
“Say, aren’t you ‘The Kid’? Can you sum up any philosophy you might have about boxing, son?”
“Put up or shut up.”
Rodger had wanted to tell the reporter about Big Red: explain how the man’s words formed patterns that he moved through. But it was stupid to think it would have meant something to anyone else.
Mad Maloney versus The Kid. Rodger almost lost the championship, playing too long. The crowd, booing and catcalling, hated the way Rodger wore Maloney down dancing around him. Maloney shuffled and swung wide. In the last round, Rodger knocked him unconscious. Sent him to the hospital.
That’s not how he had wanted it; it just didn’t feel like a fair fight. And the crowd had clapped and hollered, stamping the ground with their feet. All for the blood of it.
He’d headed for the underside of Chicago. He got lost there among people who didn’t give a damn about the beat up face of a small-town white boy. Women swept steps; men moved together in groups down the sidewalks.
Then that house with chipped and flaking brown paint, a black-lettered sign dangling from a broken chain that read: Rooms To Let. The big woman in a purple house dress, her arms beneath the torn sleeves bulging with fat.
“Ten a month. Cash in advance. No smoking, no drinking and,” smiling, exposing blackened, rotting teeth, “no women.” She scratched her belly. “I give you one meal, dinner. If you’re not here, you don’t eat.”
Disgusted, Rodger, had not replied, but turned and walked rapidly down the street. Then on the steps that might have another lodging house, he had come across a Negro slumped against the railings. The man moaned and swayed, clutching his side.
“Are you all right?” Rodger had moved toward him, but the stench of neglect and despair had repelled him. The black man slowly widened his lids, focusing his yellowed eyes on Rodger.
“Hey, man, I’m a sight better than you.”
“Know a decent place to lay down my things for a few nights?”
“All of God’s green earth, son, is good enough to lay down on.”
Rodger had thrown two fifty‑cent pieces into the old man’s lap. Claw‑like fingers scooped them up and hurriedly slid them into a pocket. Looking suspiciously left and right, he hunched his shoulders and whispered, “Down the street. Mrs. Mason boards. Don’t ask no questions.”
Rodger had flipped another fifty‑cent coin into the fumbling hands that cupped themselves with remarkable speed.
“Hey, boy, you can stay and talk all day if ya want. I got all sorts of ears.”
Rodger walked on. His wallet was full of winnings—mostly ill‑gotten gains from smokers. He had money, time and no friends. He had walked on until he had spied the brownstone house with a small, weather‑eaten sign that read: Mason, 113 Cane Blvd. Mrs. Mason, faded beauty, and her beautiful tawny‑skinned girl, Della. Della with the whiskey-colored eyes and seductive smirk.
His terrible aloneness. Searching for a job. One rejection after another. Until Sally. He found her on the street with lips that were smooth and naturally dark, trimmed with pink flesh, slightly parted to reveal even, front teeth; and in whose eyes he couldn’t find the black pupil and the iris, only two sparks of yellow in the middle.
She had been bold; he had been naїve. Finally she had asked him bluntly, “Cat got your tongue?” then laughed, throwing back her head and shaking her bandanna‑covered head. “Looks like a big un got ya, too.”
Rodger had laughed. When they had caught their breath, he offered her his arm. She snorted, not removing her hands from her hips.
Then abruptly she said, “My name’s Sally. What’s yours?”
About to put her arm through his, she pulled away. “I got a sister, Jane, too.” She glared at him.
“What a coincidence! I have a dog named Spot.” He smiled at her.
She shook her head, giggles erupting from her compressed mouth. Rodger took her arm again, waiting for her to lead. Two blocks and to the right on Maple, near Farren Park, she hesitated before a flight of stairs going into a rundown brownstone building. Rodger dropped her arm and waited. Wordlessly, he followed her up three flights of stairs to her room.
“If you’ll have one with me.”
A bed covered with a single dingy sheet was the only place to sit. Rodger sank heavily into the mattress, with Sally sliding into him as she sat down. They clicked bottles and sipped without talking. Sally jumped up and fumbled with a radio, bringing disjointed, strained voices into the room. She stood so close to him he could feel the heat from her body. He reached up and took her hand.
They held hands several minutes before Sally shook free her hand and broke the silence.
“What happened to you?” The beer gurgled in her throat while she drank down the last of it.
“Tried my hand at the Golden Glove Championship. Maybe I should’ve tried my feet, too, huh?”
She caressed his cheek with her free hand, barely touching her fingertips to his skin, trailing liquid fire down his temple to his throat and up his other cheek. Her fingers played across his eyelids, smoothing down the corners, around the temple, over the bridge of his nose, and retracing the path again and again.
Her hand came across his lips, and he kissed it. She jerked, then resumed a circular stroke on his chin. She put down her beer bottle, balanced herself on his shoulders, and kissed him. As he put his hands to her waist, she pushed, and they both tumbled into the bed, holding tightly onto each other. With slow deliberation, they made love. Like old friends, they comforted each other in the stillness of night.
Afterwards, Sally had collected matches and cigarettes in one hand, pinching together two sweaty bottles of beer with the other. Rodger swapped her an empty bottle for a full one, and Sally propped herself against the wall, using the discarded bottle as an ashtray. Rodger stretched out beside her, cradling his head in his arms. Sally took the pillow that would be his and shoved it behind her.
She spoke about the city, places where he might go scout a job. Maybe even where she worked, Republic Steel, the Southside plant. He closed his eyes and let her resonant voice wash over him.
The rustling movements of a woman dressing awakened him. Sunlight fought its way through the dirtied window, casting a sullied light throughout the room. Rodger blinked hard.
“Sal, where are you?”
She came from the bathroom, dressed in denim overalls and work shirt, tying a bandanna.
“Lazy‑lover, get up and get yerself a bath. I left you a towel by the door.” Rodger went to caress her, but she avoided him. “Hurry up or I’ll be late for work.”
She wiped his back for him after his bath. He grabbed her, hugging her tight. “Hey, Sal, let’s go to the International Market. I haven’t seen it. I could pick you up after work and we’ll walk over there. Or is it too far?”
She pushed away from him. He followed her into the kitchen.
Bending over the sink, she called out, “I got bread for toast.”
“We could have dinner at a diner on the corner of 54th.”
“Ain’t got butter, though. You’ll have to have it dry.”
“Hey, Sal, for Pete’s sake…”
She whirled around as he came to stand beside her. “You born dumb, or do you work at it, white boy?”
The bitter words echoed in the tiny room. Rodger stared at her. She whisked a stray, wiry stand of hair underneath the scarf and continued boring straight into his eyes.
“You mean you won’t go anywhere with me?”
Sally shrugged, disgusted, and moved away from him. “Ain’t no place in this city a white and nigger can be seen in public.”
“Well, hell, I didn’t mean it as a personal insult. I just want to be with you. Do something nice with you.”
She softened, her shoulders slumping as she placed her hand on his forearm. “I guess you have what’s called ‘honorable intentions.’”
Rodger dressed. He took out his wallet and offered it to her.
Sally pushed it away. “Ain’t no charge for friends. You all come back and stay the night with me again. Maybe Thursday. I gotta go.” She quickly pecked his stubbled cheek, squeezing his arm as she opened the door. “You make some toast for yourself. Push the little button inside the door and just shut it good before you leave. See you, lover.”
“Hey, Sal, take care of yourself. I’ll see you again.”
“Sure, lover‑boy. Come back real soon.”
Rodger combed his hair, staying in the bathroom until he no longer heard her footsteps on the stairs. Then he took a fifty dollar bill, folded it into a ring, and put it by the toaster.
Rodger shook his head at the phantom images, an acute sense of weariness flooding through his body. Sam, at least would get a medal of some kind.
His voice shaky at first, he leaned over Sam, “Yeah, Sam, I was just a dumb white boy, nineteen, thinking things were all right just because they were. Until Chicago. I got smart. The smart kid on the block. The boy with the “golden” touch. I joined the AAU summer camp then went right into the cavalry.”
He straightened Sam’s shirt, patting his chest. “It was all so easy, Sam, the way things fell into place. I was one of those qualified to fly, so I got to fly. And command. It was that simple. I even boxed a few times and won at my weight. A hero. A god‑damned hero.”
In the quiet of the night, an explosion reverberated. A plane downed. Rodger felt LinChing’s presence, the shadow man. As he stood, he motioned to Sam’s body. “Will you take care of him? The boys are comin’ in.”
LinChing nodded. The first of the three planes came in, the wheels screeching plaintively in the strangely calm night air.
Rodger tensed. “There’re only three home.” He walked briskly toward McGree’s plane.
McGree threw back the canopy and shouted, “Five out of seven of the bastards!”
The others, Barnes and Stevens, were taxiing into the revetments. Rodger’s stomach knotted. He watched as they climbed down from the wings and grouped around one another, congratulating each other.
Rodger approached them. As the four formed a half‑circle, he looked from one face to another. “We’ll give Buck an airman’s burial in the morning.”
All heads nodded in solemn assent. They would fly over his wreck in formation, the final farewell to a fallen comrade.
Rodger turned on his heel, walking with slow, measured steps. “Let’s have a drink.” His men close behind him, Rodger led the way back to the hut.
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