Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Forcing the Hand of God: Chapter 20 (part 2)

Madeline had pointed to the dinner plates on the table.

“Eat your supper.”

She had left them and gone to her bedroom. From upstairs her disembodied voice rang out sharply.
“Clean up after yourselves.”

Rodger had watched his father, wondering all the while why he had wanted to make her mad.
Rodger knelt by the grave, smoothing out the dirt, then stood and spoke softly to his mother as she looked intently into his eyes.

“Remember how Dad always listened for the nine‑fifteen? Every night when the whistle blew, he’d pull out his watch. Then nod, and say, ‘She’s right on time.’ ”

Madeline did not reply right away. Massive black clouds gathered in the sky. Thunder rumbled. She looked away from Rodger, down to the grave.

“Your father was a man of habits.”

“He used to take me down to the train depot. We’d sit aboard an engine and take a short ride it in.” Rodger stopped short of telling her that it was the last time he’d gone to the train yards with his father that John had yanked him close and whispered in a low and fierce voice, as if the night had ears, ‘You do what you must, boy. Be it ditch digging or president of the United States. Don’t let anyone stop you. You do it honestly for yourself.’”

“He was a good father. And husband.” Madeline twisted her handkerchief into her hands. She stepped to Rodger and placed a hand on his arm. “You do his memory justice, son.”

Rodger understood this to be an order, not a compliment.

“Do you want me to drive you home?”

“Yes, I would like that.”

Slowly, they walked back to the car. Rodger opened the door and waited until his mother had slid into the seat, smoothed out her dress, and nodded to him before he closed the door. He flung the package in the back seat.

When he pulled into his mother’s driveway, he noticed that Ada’s porch light had been turned off. He retrieved his package and hurried into the house, hoping not to get caught by his aunt. Instead, Rachel bounded down the stairs.

“Don’t forget Captain Midnight!”

Rodger had forgotten and thought only of going home. He sighed. “I won’t.”

Madeline eyed him. “Stay for dinner. Six as usual.”

“I don’t know, Mother. I’m going to visit Adele.”

Madeline turned away and went into the kitchen. Rodger left through the back door, crossing the yard and coming through Ada’s backyard gate. He found her sitting on her patio, the kitten asleep in her lap.

“Rodger! I’m so happy to see you!” She continued stroking the little kitten as she motioned with her other hand.

“What have you got?”

“Boxing trunks. I’m going to work out at the old gym.”

Ada grinned. “Show the young bucks you still have it in you.”

“Better than ever!” Rodger dragged a chair next to hers and sat down, dropping his package onto the ground. “Ever hear anything about Big Red?”

Ada fiddled with the pins in her bun, trying vainly to catch the wisps. “No, nothing more since the night your father, Sam, and I helped him get out of town.”

She leaned over and squeezed his arm. “Awfully sorry about the way you were treated that night. None of us meant to ignore you.”

She eased back into her chair, realigning the kitten in her lap.

“I know.” As he pulled out the boxes from his pocket, “Look. It’ll go with all the silver jewelry I brought back from China for her.”

With an involuntary groan, Ada straightened up to reach over and touch the wide, silver band with five dark red rubies.

“Oh, how lovely!” She waggled her eyebrows. “Adele will be delighted. What’s this?”

“Mary Elizabeth put that in my rice dinner. On her twelfth birthday, she chose me as her future husband.” Rodger massaged his jaw, remembering. “Nearly lost a molar.” He took the bead and chain out of the box. “I bought this chain for it. Thought I’d give it to Jonelle for her twelfth birthday.”
Ada polished the chain with her fingers.

“A nice way of remembering.” The kitten stirred, stretching out its little legs, claws extended. Ada ran a hand down the length of its body. “Adele will surely love the ring, Rodger. So thoughtful of you.”

“I hope so.” He turned towards the garden. “Do you still do all the gardening by yourself?”

“Adele helped me a lot this year. Been sending a lot of produce to the ladies for the soldiers coming through Chicago.” Ada straightened a bit in her chair. “It’s a good excuse for me not to do housework.”

“But you still sew a lot, don’t you?”

“My livelihood, Rodger.”

“I remember the black silk boxing robe you made me for my seventeenth birthday. ‘THE KID’ in white satin letters across the back. Black satin trunks. I looked every bit the part of the Golden Gloves champion.”

He sighed. “I ripped a seam trying the old shorts on.” He patted his stomach. “I’ve gotten a bit bigger since then.”

Ada chuckled. “That you have.” She eased the kitten to the ground. He prowled around Rodger’s feet. “Will you have supper with me?”


The humidity of the June evening pressed sweat into his skin, making Rodger itch all over. He rose from his chair and held the door for Ada as she entered the kitchen, following behind her.
“Let me help.”

“No, you sit while I get us a simple supper. I’ll slice some cheese for sandwiches and make us some soup.”

Rodger watched Ada and noticed with sadness that her movements were slow and laborious as she sliced the cheddar cheese, and she grimaced when using the can opener. He jumped up and hurried to stir the simmering soup while she made the cheese sandwiches.

Rodger took plates and bowls from the cabinet and stood beside Ada as she ladled soup and slid a sandwich upon each plate. Deftly, Rodger placed a plate on his left forearm, another in his hand, then took a soup bowl with his right, leaving Ada only one bowl to bring to the table.

After several minutes of conversation about his day at the gym, Rodger lay his half-eaten sandwich down upon the plate.

“This is just like when I was a kid and used to sit here and tell you all about everything that happened at Big Red’s gym. Gosh, those were really the best times for me.”

Ada swallowed hard against the lump in her throat, not able to reply. She too, had been remembering, which made this moment so poignant for all that had changed in their lives. She watched Rodger finish the last of his soup and started to get up.

“No, I’ll wash dishes.” He collected the plates and pan and put them in the sink under running water. Brandishing the big, blue box of New Quick Lux Flakes he turned around to face Ada, mimicking Melville Ruick, the announcer on LUXRadio Theater.

…new Quick Lux Flakes…give you suds in a second.
So fast, well, it’s almost unbelievable.
You’ll think so, too, when you pour out these delicate sheer flakes…

He spun around and sprinkled the flakes vigorously, ruffling the water and continued.

Why, turn on the water and they bubble into suds like veritable magic…

 Scooping a handful of suds he rubbed his hands delicately together while looking over his shoulder.
“Oh!” he squealed, “New Quick Lux Flakes leave my hands so soft!”

Ada laughed so hard she could only gasp, “Rod—ger!”

He arched an eyebrow, intoning in his deepest voice, “And it’s thrifty! And,” he shook a sudsy finger at her, “it won’t leave a soapy film after I’m done!”

“No, it won’t,” Ada took a big breath, exhaled with a chuckle, “but you still have to rinse the dishes with hot water.”

Rodger made a show of running the hot water over the bowl and turning it from side to side for Ada’s inspection. He placed it in the dish drainer with exaggerated flourish, and then resumed his dishwashing.

“What else do you do during the day?”

“I work a little at the hospital as a nurse’s aide. I used to be a nurse, a long time ago.”

The pan slipped from Rodger’s soapy hand and clattered onto the sink board. “You?”

Ada plucked a towel from a rack and began to dry the dishes.

“Before I was married to Steve I worked full time at the same hospital your baby girl was born in.”
Rodger surveyed the kitchen with a critical eye.

“These cabinets are too high for you. You know, it would be a simple matter to let them down a few inches.” He paced around the kitchen inspecting the cabinets. “I could start on it tomorrow.”

“Oh, Rodger! That’s sweet of you, but you’ll have your hands full with Adele and the baby home.”
Ada flicked the towel at him. A faint meow outside the door let them know The Kid wanted in.

“They can come over here or go next door for a while. I’ll ask Adele.”

Ada hugged Rodger, encircling his waist. “No hurry, Rodger. See how things work out.”

Rodger glanced at his watch. “Damn! I have to run to the hospital if I’m going to see Adele and listen to that ... that crazy Midnight Captain with Rachel and Heather.”

He stepped aside to let Ada open the door.

“I think it’s Captain Midnight. And go along. Would you like to use my car?” She searched in her purse, dragging out a set of keys.

“No, I’ll walk.”

He pushed away her hand with the dangling keys. “I’m in training, remember?”

“Oh, right.” She snickered. “It’ll not take you long.”

“But may I use your car to bring Adele and the baby home?”

“Of course you may.” Ada checked the clock. “Run along, mister. Kiss Adele and the baby for me.”
He sprinted out the door then turned at the gate and shouted, “I’ll be back later for my clothes. After ‘Midnight.’ ”

His gait was easy at first; then he pushed himself against the wall of humid air, forcing his legs to pump harder. The image of the two young boxers cropped up intermittently with flashbacks of Big Red. He realized as the hospital came into sight that he had left the ring and bead at Ada’s house. He slowed to a walk. He could still do three miles without much strain. He’d be in shape in no time.

The nurses greeted him with friendly waves and smiles, and a nurse’s aid called out a cheery ‘Good afternoon!’ as he strolled down the hall to Adele’s room. Next door a cart with magazines, stuffed animals and books made Rodger flash back to street vendors in China.

“Hi.” He pushed open the door and went in.

Adele looked up with a welcoming smile.

He sat on the bed, pushing Adele with his hips. “Make me some room.”

She kissed and nipped his ear. “Anything for such a sweet talker.”

He kissed her nose. “Since you insist on going AWOL tomorrow, what time am I supposed to pick you up?”

“Be here at eight. That’s the earliest I can leave, they tell me. However,” she rubbed his upper arm, “you could abduct me tonight.”

“I walked here.” He stroked her side. “I’ll come back later tonight with a car.”

Adele chortled. “Would that I could, but I should not.”

She nestled into his shoulder. “The baby.”

“Oh, yeah. Her.” Rodger scratched his head. “Rather messy getaway.”

“Just be here bright and early, all right?”

Adele sat up. “After a week and a half, I’m damn sick and tired of this place.”

“If you’re sick and tired, this is the place you’re supposed to be.” Rodger tweaked her nose.

She slapped his hand. “Not a minute after eight!”

“Honey, would you mind if I remodeled Ada’s kitchen? I think it strains her to have to reach so high.”

“Why would I mind?” Adele wrinkled her nose. “I’ll, I mean, we’ll go with you and visit.”

She added quickly, “I know it’s not supposed to be done, but I think all that stuff about staying in the hospital for two or three weeks, then not seeing anyone for the first month is a lot of hogwash. I’d like to go to Ada’s for just an hour or so. But I don’t want her waiting on us.”

Rodger hugged Adele close. The sultry night air from the opened window made them sticky with perspiration. They lay in silence, listening to the katydids chirp.

“My folks got a call through from London. Daddy says Mother feels like she hasn’t done her duty by being here to help. I guess it’s really bad over there. Daddy says the tension is so thick between them at the embassy, you could cut it up and serve it for breakfast. They’d like to come out and stay with us. One day.”

Adele played her finger along the crease in Rodger’s pants. “Probably not until after the war.”
Rodger rubbed the material of Adele’s nightgown between his fingers.

“I’ve been stationed stateside. As an instructor.”

Adele held her breath, examining his face. He smelled her sweet, peculiar odor as she exhaled, “That’s wonderful!”

Rodger stared out the window at the fireflies. “I’ll be home for another three weeks.”

“We’ll find out in short order if we’re compatible,” Adele cooed as she pressed closer into his body. “I’ll wager we are.”

“Ada was gone all night. So was Uncle Kyle. Do you think there’s a connection?”

Adele giggled. “I hope so.”

“What?” Rodger pulled away to look into her eyes. “Would you wish to perpetuate this madness on perfectly nice people?”

“You bet I would.” Adele pinched his cheek.

“Ah, damn,” Rodger cursed, checking his watch. He swung his legs off the bed. “I promised the girls I’d listen to Midnight Maniac with them.”

“Captain Midnight happens to be a very serious program about a very heroic sort of man, my dear Rodger.” Adele crossed her arms and gave him a menacing face. “You would do well to emulate our national hero.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he retorted, clicking his heels and throwing a salute to her. “I’ll do my best.” He bent close to her face. “My very best.”

“I’m sure you will. But first,” she threw her arms around his neck, “prove your good intentions.” She kissed him.

“See you and the kid in the morning.” Rodger waved a kiss as he went out the door and down the hall, stopping at the nursery window to wink at Jonelle. Once out the main hospital door, he broke into a full run. He had to do as much as he possibly could to get into shape for that boxing match. Stay light on his feet and move, move, move all of the time.

As he passed landmarks, he thought of the many lives he had lived in this town, the many people he had been. He made it to his mother’s house with five minutes to spare. He walked up and down the sidewalk until his breath evened out.

The door opened and Kyle sauntered onto the porch, drink in hand.

“Uncle Kyle!” Rodger joined his uncle on the edge of the porch. “Buy you a drink after I sit through the radio program with my sisters?”

Kyle swished the liquor around and over the ice cubes.

“Sure, Rodg. If there’s any place open.”

“There is. You just have to know where to look.” Rodger clapped him on the shoulder. “You don’t look too happy.”

Kyle motioned to the house with the drink. “Stable full of nags.”

“You know what the problem is?” Rodger leaned closer to his uncle’s face. “Bored. They’re bored.”
The clock in the hallway chimed eight. Rodger paused at the door.

“Got my orders today. Stateside. Instructor.” He turned to the darkened figure sitting on the porch swing. “I’ve put in a request for a transfer.” Rodger stayed his hand on the door knob. “Don’t mention it to anyone.”

“I’ll be here,” Kyle clinked the ice cubes against the glass. “We can catch some action later.”

Rodger stepped across the threshold of the front door, veering for the stairs as he passed the living room. He nodded briskly at his mother’s frowning face and bounded upstairs to the bedroom before his Aunt Carrie could catch him with her concern. Rachel and Heather sat in front of the radio, silent in their eagerness not to miss a word of the program. The sound of a church bell and diving airplane and the announcer introducing “Capptainn—Mid-night!” swept Rodger along with his sisters into the fantasy of a mysterious pilot and his daring deeds. When the program ended, Rodger regretted having missed out on so many of the pilot’s adventures. He patted his sisters on the head.

“You’re going to have to keep a diary on Captain Midnight for me and send me a copy once a week.”
“Oh, yes!” squealed Rachel. “We will, won’t we, Heather?”

Heather nodded vigorously. “Is it just like that, Rodger? Don’t you fly just like Captain Midnight?”
Rodger chuckled softly. “Yeah, sport. I’m almost as good as Captain Midnight.” He started to leave, then turned to them. “Except for one thing.”

Rachel and Heather both looked at him with trepidation. Rachel grabbed for Heather’s hand.
“What?” she whispered.

“I hate Ovaltine®.”

He left them giggling in his mother’s bedroom as he took the stairs two at a time. He stopped momentarily at the doorway to the living room.

“Me and Uncle Kyle are going out for a while. Won’t be long.”

“Uncle Kyle and I,” corrected Madeline, looking as if she were about to protest, but Carrie turned and cried out, “Oh, Rodgie, I’ve hardly had a moment to speak with you! Won’t you stay a minute?”

“Ah, I’d love to, but honestly, there’s a man I have to see tonight. Already late.” He reached the door. “I’ll be around tomorrow. With Adele and the baby.”

Kyle stood as Rodger closed the door.

“Oh, damn!” Rodger slumped against the porch railing. “I forgot to get the keys to the car.”

Kyle started down the steps. “No, problem.” He pulled out a set of keys from his pocket. “Ada won’t mind.”

Rodger swallowed his surprise. He pushed off the railing, following his uncle to Ada’s garage. As he climbed in the passenger’s seat, he glimpsed Ada at the kitchen sink. She appeared to be smiling back at Uncle Kyle. He turned around quickly, embarrassed to have caught their exchange.

He pressed into the seat. “Uptown and left at the bank,” Rodger instructed. Kyle sped up. “We’ll haunt some old places that I won a smoker or two in.” Kyle grunted. “Introduce you to some of Dad’s old friends.”

“Met some of John’s friends once. Not that I would want to run into them in a dark alley.”

“Yeah, Dad had some interesting friends.” Rodger lit a cigarette. “Seems he had a split personality. One for men and one for women.”

“Self‑defense, my boy.” Kyle slowed, signaling left, and then turned off the main street into the heart of colored town. “You’ll learn it’s the only way to get along.”

“Maybe.” Rodger exhaled smoke hard from his lungs. “No more of these for me, that much I know.” He threw out the cigarette. “I want to play it good and clean. Not end up with half my life lived in regrets.”

“I doubt that John had any regrets,” As the car scraped to a stop along the curb in front of Joe’s Saloon, Kyle rammed the gearshift into park. “Maybe you didn’t understand the whole of it.”

Rodger popped the handle up, swinging open the door.

“I understood enough. Enough to know that he wanted me to be free of the life he had.”

Voices from the past hailed Rodger as he walked through the door. For a moment he considered that maybe he didn’t understand “the whole of it,” as Uncle Kyle put it. People that he thought he knew so well, he didn’t.

Men, black and white, moneyed and on relief, surrounded him. Rodger laid his money on the bar and ordered two drinks. Home for now and, for a little while, with no time for him to have regrets. He’d save that for his old age.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Chaos and Creation

Everyone is creative: it is how you manage the process that makes the difference. The creative process is messy and chaotic, but a necessary part of creation. Talking with students of all ages, the one thing that stymies the project from getting started is how to begin, how to jump into it, organize it and see it through. I have a mantra I say to myself: trust the process.

We create in our waking and sleeping lives, using words and images to communicate. A thought is words put in order, to talk to oneself or another, to make a shopping list, cook a meal, get through the daily activities. Routines help us to corral the chaos into a manageable process, from the basics of learning ABCs, tying shoelaces, reading and writing to more sophisticated skills like driving a car, using a computer, and navigating the social and career spheres.

Sometimes it is easier to do than other times, when it seems that chaos reigns. I can compare the process with quilting. Some quilts go together simply, effortlessly, with minimal effort, like the Tardis Quilt, while others require revision after revision. The picture is a quilt I am working on for my daughter and her husband. I knew the theme would be a star quilt; I culled images from the internet and books I have in my library before I found the Friendship Star pattern I liked. Now what? He is a Taurus and she is a Virgo; the constellations map out beautifully for a quilt—but it has taken me over one hundred sketches to get the right layout—and then I have revised the colors and combinations five times before I was satisfied. My work space is perfect for doing large projects and I can keep organized as I am working. The theme came after I had bought the material, which was unusual for me, but nothing quite sounded right until snap! the thought Stars Falling Love, was just right. It is coming together, but slowly...the longest it has taken me to finish a quilt.

But during this process I had an insight into what is known as ‘writer’s block’, or that frustrating state when the project stalls out. I walked away from the sewing machine and sat outside on the deck stairs, thinking. I second-guessed every step, every completed star block, every color combination until I could no longer work on the quilt. Why is it not going smoothly? Why?Why?Why? Because, I want it to be perfect and all I can see is mistakes. Is it going to be beautiful like I envisioned? If it is not done, then I do not have to answer that question.

And so it goes with writing. My first book, Forcing the Hand of God, was first a series of inter-related short stories I had done for my master’s thesis. I was in a professional writer’s workshop, and had a wonderful, astute group of writers to critique my manuscript. That book was a learning process and I honed my skills as a writer, which took four years, from first draft to finished manuscript. My next project, KISS Keep It Short and Simple, was a compilation of notes that I had kept for various workshops I had given for beginning writers; it pretty much was a matter of organizing and filling in chapter headings before it went to the typographer, who added some absolutely amazing graphics that made the finished book charming. The first of the Bully Dog series, the story and characters of Bully Dogs, came holistically to me, and with the advent of the word processor and computer, was a week in the writing and two months in the revisions. The second book, YNK (You Never Know) took six months of conception, three weeks to write and two months of revisions before I let it go to print. The third book, A Penny in Time, actually was a stand alone story until I had written the other two and realized that Dusty belonged with Fran and her story fit with the series. The last book, Forever and a Day, has been a slog, but the first draft is done and awaits revision.

I do a lot of thought processing in writing stories, as you may have guessed from all this. Much of my time is spent back and forth, up and down and through hoops of what-if-this-then-that-will-it-work even before I type the title onto a page to begin my writing project. I make copious random notes, on characteristics, scenes, descriptions of clothing, hair color, likes/dislikes of the various persons and familial relationships—not all of the information necessarily makes it into the story line. I had one character that badgered me for over a year to write her story. Finally, I gave in and wrote the story—it is technically a perfect short story, but trite; I did not want to write about her because it had been done before by much better writers than I. When I get through the first five chapters of my new book, Eye of the Moon, which is set on a colonized planet in our solar system, this story will be an appropriate and pivotal chapter in the book.

Vision, envision, revision—imagination—reality—dreamscape; all a part of the chaos of creation. My advice is to trust yourself that you know what you know and by putting those thoughts into order, you can begin at the beginning and get to the end of a project. As in quilting and writing, an organized workspace is vital to contain chaos; break down the project into manageable components. In quilting, it is the block pattern, for writing it is one sentence after another, one paragraph then another. In writing, compare, contrast and inter-relate ideas, as you would in any project, from a grocery list to an essay. The very action of beginning with a pencil, or a blank document, takes that idea and makes it concrete. From imagining it to visualizing it to producing it, trust the creative process that from chaos comes creation. It will take time, it will take effort, it will, in the end, be beautiful.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Forcing the Hand of God: Chapter 20 (part 1)

The noon glare of the sun hurt Rodger’s eyes as he fumbled for his sunglasses. He settled back into the driver’s seat, contented, as he drove fast along the highway, from the lower eastside of Chicago to Wilmington. The ring box lay on the seat next to him. He glanced at it occasionally, pleased that he had thought of the perfect tokens of his love. He had enjoyed the mystified look on the jeweler’s face when he requested that Adele’s ring be engraved with two dates: their first night together and their wedding day.

He whistled, enjoying the rolling countryside as it flashed by. He pressed the accelerator, urging the Olds faster and faster, until the greens and browns blurred and the wind whipped his shirt sleeve as he gripped the side mirror with his left hand.

Pulling into the driveway, he focused on Madeline’s face as she sat on the porch swing talking with Carrie. He was forty‑five minutes ahead of schedule, which should please his mother. His aunt groaned when she saw him approach and the lawn chair shivered as she stood up.

“Goodness, it’s going to be a hot day. Madeline and I were just saying that the weather looks like it’ll last all summer. A hot one.”

Rodger started to toss his mother the car keys, but thought better of it. He stopped at the bottom step and dropped the keys into her outstretched hand.


“Rodger, if you would like the car,” she pinched the keys between her thumb and forefinger, “you could drop me off and pick me up at four.”

Rodger shook his head. “No. I can walk where I’m going.”

His aunt handed him a long, thin sheet of paper. He scanned it, folding it carefully under her watchful eyes, and pocketed it.

“I’ll take care of this.”

He understood why Kyle had to get away from this house. All these demands trapped a man.

“Rodgie,” Carrie clung to Rodger’s wrist, “I better explain a few things on that list. I was telling Madeline that you should…”

“Carrie, Rodger’s certainly capable of figuring out what needs to be done.” Madeline flicked her skirt with a finger.

“Well, all I meant was for him to be sure and take care of the first things on the list. There are some important details that if left unattended will prove very costly,” Carrie looked sharply at Madeline, “to you, in the end. And in your state of mind, you wouldn’t know what is and isn’t important right now.”

“Oh, cat’s poop, Carrie,” Madeline hissed.

Rodger slipped his wrist from his aunt’s grasp and started to back away from the two women, but Madeline stood up, raising a hand to delay him. “A letter came for you this morning. Just a minute.”
She opened the door and disappeared into the house.

Rodger smiled at his aunt, edging one foot behind the other down the stairs. “I’ll take care of things, don’t worry.”

Carrie shrugged, pursing her lips. “I understand that she’s under a lot of strain, but honestly, sometimes!” She heaved an offended sigh.

Rodger braced himself for more of his aunt’s incessant complaining when Madeline appeared in the doorway. She walked over to him and thrust the letter into his hand.
“It looks important.”

He looked at it. Government. He crushed it into his pocket, stepping away from the porch.

“Aren’t you going to open it, Rodg?” Aunt Carrie inquired sweetly.

“Later. Gotta run, ladies. Promised Adele that I’d see to a few things.” He waved to them and turned away.

Rodger could see Ada’s porch light still burning, faint in the bright sunshine. Suddenly, he felt adrift. Adele and the baby would be home tomorrow. He had all of today to be by himself. He could do as he pleased.

He walked uptown, past the Longhorn Bank where his father had worked half his life. He cut across the alley and went into colored town, the “other side” of town, past old Joe’s Saloon where his father had slipped in now and again for a drink with the people who called him “Casey John.”

He’d been scared and excited the day his father had walked him down to the gym. Rodger had pulled on his father’s coat sleeve. “How do you know these people, Dad?”

His father’s booming laugh had rung loud and clear, making people stop and wonder at the two of them.

“Used to spar a little in my day. The enginemen used to have smokers. The best of the lot would go the last fight. Four rounds, three minutes each. A really good fight lasted five or six rounds. Picked up extra spending money.” He had stopped and put a hand on Rodger’s shoulder. “Took your mother to the nicest restaurants around town on smokers’ money.”

“Why’d you quit the railroad, Dad?” Rodger insisted, tugging harder on a fistful of sleeve.

“It wouldn’t do, son. An engineman leaves his family alone too much. Made a promise to your mother that I would get my degree and find a family man’s job.”

Today, time stopped for Rodger as he walked along the sidewalk. Some of the old timers nodded. Unattended children, black and white, ran up and down the alley. Women swept concrete porches, or slouched on the steps. Rodger stopped in front of the stairway to the gym where he had trained under Big Red. Raymond Landmere. Creole. Olive‑skin and green eyes, with his auburn hair. Trainer of Kit Swenson, Jooeko, and Lefty Vine.

Thunder cracked. Rodger winced. Raindrops suddenly pelted him, making him blink. The old gym was open. He climbed the stairs.

He’d always known something was different about Big Red, something not quite white.

Nigger. Rodger hadn’t wanted it to be true. But he knew, he knew from the first day.

He hadn’t been pleased to meet Big Red that first time, just a kid of ten. One thump from that big man, and Rodger might as well have kissed the good earth good‑bye. But it had been Rodger’s introduction into the world of men. Real men.

Big Red had spoken directly to Rodger.

“First, ya gotta learn balance and feet positions.” He’d sized up Rodger like an artist would a landscape. “Can ya jump rope?”

“No! That’s sissy stuff!” Rodger had bellowed, and then had noticed, too late, several men skipping rope, crossing and uncrossing it, hopping twice on one foot and double‑timing without breaking rhythm.

Big Red had howled in amusement. “First thing, boy, ya got to get good eyes. Get ya observing what’s going on around ya. Then ya make yar move.”

Rodger followed the familiar path into the main gym where the ring and punching bags were. Several boys down on the mats labored doing push‑ups, just as he had done for Big Red. Rodger walked over to the ring and watched two guys sparring. He watched their feet, betting the one in black trunks would take a fall.

Big Red had worked him hard all of the time. Rodger had bought gym clothes and shoes and started running two miles in the morning. Ada had washed and mended his clothes so that his mother wouldn’t find out.

The young man in black trunks stumbled. The man in the red trunks swung wide and missed his mark. Rodger chuckled; thanks to Big Red he never would have made that mistake.

“What we gonna do today, boy, is dance,” Big Red had boomed. “See these here guys? They’re shadowboxin’. Look at their feet.”

Rodger had stared obediently at two sets of feet stirring sawdust.

“See anythin’ different?”

Rodger hadn’t known what he was seeing.

“Put up your hands. Ya’re gonna defend yourself.”

Rodger had faced Big Red, doubling his fists, fear quickening his already furiously beating heart. Big Red had swung, missing Rodger’s left cheek. Rodger had raised his entire right arm, and Big Red had shoved the forearm, pitching Rodger backwards.

“Yar feet, boy! If ya ain’t on yar toes, the other guy’ll knock ya for a loop.”

The young man in the black trunks, stenciled with “MT,” caught the other man “JL,” with an uppercut, but JL stayed planted on his feet. JL in red trunks rallied, catching the MT in the black shorts off‑guard. MT skidded to the side, up against the ropes.

Rodger leaned over and whispered, “You should have danced.”

“Go to—”

A stocky man, shorter than Rodger, suddenly appeared beside him. “What’s your business, mister?”
“Used to box here. I want to work out.”

“Jesus, man, I can’t send you up against these young men. They’re fast. And mean.”

Rodger threw back his head and roared. “Give me a week. I’ll take on the young man in the red trunks. Or black.” Rodger stared the man down. “Or both.”

“Pretty damn sure of yourself.” The trainer squinted, his leathery skin cracking around unfriendly eyes. The two men in the ring sneered. “All right, you’re on. Five bucks for use of the equipment.”

Rodger took out his wallet and handed the man a five-dollar bill.

“How early and how late?”

“I get here about five a.m. I leave whenever I feel like going home.” He shoved the money into his pocket. “Who are you, anyway?”

“Rodger Brown.” He extended his hand to the other man.

“Shorty Walker.” He eyed Rodger, and then snapped his fingers. “The Kid!” He cocked an eyebrow. “You had style.”

“Can I use a locker?”

“Hey, Reb! Show this man where he can hang his clothes!” Shorty waved over a young, muscular, black man who carried himself like a fighter—straight, sure and proud.

Rodger followed him, noticing the rippling, bulging back muscles glistening with sweat. Wordlessly, Reb pointed to the locker nearest the end wall.

“Thanks.” Rodger nodded as Reb turned to leave. “I’ll be seeing you around.”

“Sure, Pop.”

Rodger flexed and tensed his arms, working out the ache in his shoulder. Twenty-four and an old man among these young bucks. He inhaled deeply of the sweat and blood odors of other men. He went to his locker and opened it, staring at the empty interior; he would have to shop for clothes today. He had better get a move on.

But he lingered, wondering whatever had happened to his friend and partner, Manny. He and Manny had been so tight. All in training for the Big One, the Golden Gloves. Damn, they hadn’t even been aware that Big Red had had his own problems. He never showed any concern for himself.

One morning had been an omen of change when Manny had given Rodger a run for his money. Manny had been in control, coming into his punches and blocking the frontal strikes. Rodger had tightened up his elbows, drawing them into his body like Big Red had taught him. He had dodged Manny’s superior left hook and planted a firm, right jab for a knockdown. Then he had pulled off his helmet and given Manny a hand up just as Big Red had leaped into the ring.

Big Red had grabbed Rodger’s gloved hands and brutally jerked them together so that Rodger’s shoulders curved.

“Save the good posture for church.” Rodger had just stood there staring. “If Manny had been that much faster,” Big Red’s fingers snapped under Rodger’s nose, “he’d a plowed ya under. Hunch them shoulders. Keep them fists up.” He slapped at Rodger’s elbows. “You gotta remember what I say if ya want the Golden Gloves, boy!”

Manny had edged over to the corner of the ring, standing with his arms folded across his chest, watching Big Red and Rodger. When Big Red had climbed out of the ring, Rodger moved over to stand beside Manny.

Manny playfully punched his shoulder and winked. “Woman trouble, I bet.”

Rodger had never seen Big Red with any women. And to think he had been Dee’s mother’s husband! He had idolized Big Red. It could have worked so easily, with Big Red loving Katie Simmons and Rodger loving Dee. The memory of Dee, though he could not recall her face in detail, awakened a longing in him. To right old wrongs. He looked around the locker room, a world of its own right and wrong. He slammed the locker shut. Taking out the government envelope, he sat on a bench and tore it open.

Orders. He was reassigned to Kelly Field, San Antonio, Texas. As an instructor. Carefully, he folded it and put in his shirt pocket. He tapped his pants pocket, reassured at the feel of the jeweler’s boxes; the ring for Adele and gold chain with Mary Elizabeth’s bead for Jonelle. He had made no promises to anyone—yet.

As he retraced his way from colored town to Fazio’s, the only department store in Wilmington, he thought of all the immediate tasks he must do. He left the store forty minutes later, and headed for the Longhorn Bank, swinging the sack with his new trunks and shoes and the rest in time with his steps.

He stood in line, waiting for the older teller, Alice, to beckon him forth. She did not recognize him at first, but the second time she peered over her half‑bifocals, she gave out a little surprised shriek.
“Rodger Brown!” She grasped his hand in her wrinkled one, the rubber finger stop pressing wetly into his skin.

“You don’t look a day older than when I left, Miss Alice!” Rodger leaned into the window, close to her ear. “Thought I’d stop by to say hello.”

“I’m so glad you did! Just a minute.” She pushed him away, shutting the window and moving down at the end of the teller boxes. “Come on back here and sit a spell with me.”

Rodger followed her to his father’s unoccupied desk. She motioned to the chair behind the desk. He sat, easing his package down onto the floor.

“My, I’ve heard so much about you, Rodger!” Miss Alice clapped her hands together, oblivious to the blackened rubber finger. “Your father was very proud of you. It’s so sad he couldn’t have seen your little girl.”

Rodger blushed, thinking how fast news travels in a small town like Wilmington. He took a pen from the stand and played the quill feather through his fingers. “Did you ever marry that rogue, Mr. Crane?”

“Mercy, no, Rodger! He was just a gentleman friend.”

Alice touched her hair self consciously and Rodger knew she was pleased he had remembered.
“Still winning first prize at the fair for your blackberry jam?”

“Well, few years ago I did. But with the war and all, things have changed around here.” She peered over her shoulder at the line forming in the bank’s lobby.

Rodger cleared his throat. “Mind if I use Dad’s old typewriter? There’s a letter I need to get out.”
“If you wait, I can type it for you on my break. It wouldn’t be but a few minutes.”

Rodger opened a bottom drawer and took out two sheets of his father’s embossed stationary.
“I can have it done in a jiff, Miss Alice. If it’s all right?”

“Oh, my, yes! Come see me before you leave.” She jumped up and hurried back to her box.
Rodger scooted the chair over to the Underwood manual typewriter and, using his first and middle fingers, pecked out a formal request for a transfer. He addressed the envelope and sealed it. Pushing his heels along the carpet, he maneuvered the chair back in place, quietly shut the drawer, and picked up his package. He stood in line again until Miss Alice waved him forward.

“All done. Thanks. Drop by the house and see the baby.”

“Do you have a name for her?” whispered Miss Alice.

“Jonelle.” He restrained her with an upraised finger. “Just Jonelle Brown.”

“It’s a very pretty name.” Miss Alice slid a stamp toward him. “I’ll mail it for you tonight if you leave it with me.”

“You’re a doll.” Rodger winked and gave her hand a pat. “See you soon, Miss Alice.”

For the exercise, he took the long route past the cemetery before heading home. He noticed his mother’s car parked by the gate. He hesitated, torn between the solitude of his own house and his obligation to his mother. He found her by the grave.

Madeline turned to him, dry‑eyed, as he came by her side.

“I’ve taken care of the head stone,” she said. “You can cross that off Carrie’s list. Did you open that letter yet?” They stared at one another in silence until she pointed at his package. “What have you got there?”

“Boxing trunks and stuff. Got to get back into shape.” He cleared his throat. “Got my orders.” He pulled a cigarette from the pack and lit it. “Stateside for a while.”

Madeline nodded, pleased. Then she frowned. “Is it necessary to go,” she motioned toward colored town, “back there?”

“Yes.” Rodger stepped closer to his father’s grave. He thought of the night he had won his first smoker.

He had gotten a cut over his eye. As his father’s large hand had smoothed over it protectively, Rodger had boasted, “That redneck lasted only a minute in the third. I took my eyes off of him only once.”
His father’s face had crinkled in amusement. “Want to play a joke on your mother? She’ll find out about you in the ring tonight for sure. We might as well be the first to let her know about you boxing.”
Withdrawing a thick, heavy-lead pencil and a long string of cotton, his Dad had worked on the eye. Then with some tape and a little purple ink on his cheek, Rodger had worn the magnificent appearance of a battered man.

“I’m gonna tell her it was a nigger that wamped me. That’ll get her going.”

His mother had played her part as well as any actress. She had screeched her face a wrathful red, lunged forward and shaken his father’s coat sleeve with the evangelical strength of an outraged missionary.

“John Brown, you stop this savagery once and for all! I’ll not be humiliated and the family name dragged through the bars and mouths of every common laborer and nigger. Do you understand?”
His father had given away the joke first, unable to hide his grin. Mid-sentence, Madeline had stopped and turned to Rodger. He had pulled out the packed cotton from inside his mouth, slowly balling it up in his hand. He had pressed the wad against his cheek and wiped off some of the mask.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Who Rules the World?

Albert Einstein said: “Three great forces rule the world: stupidity, fear and greed.”

The recent, horrifying events in Paris have once again rocked the world, shaken the international community to our core. We have, once again, been victimized by terrorists, and we are rightfully afraid of the next event. Because the perpetrators were Syrian, there is concern that the refugees fleeing Syria will harbor other terrorists; therefore let us not allow the immigrants into our country. That would prevent another attack on American citizens.

Not. Before we give in to fear and rhetoric, consider that the United States has her own home grown terrorists, from way back to the 1910 Los Angeles Times explosion that ignited a fatal fire; the 1920 Wall Street bombing; the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists; serial killers like Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer Gary Ridgway; anti-abortionists like Robert Dear; Symbionese Liberation Army from the 1960s; the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski; and, last but not least, Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who is responsible for the killings of 168 people, nineteen of them children—the second worst tragedy of terrorism in our country after 9/11. An article by Scott Shane, June 2015, says it succinctly: Homegrown Extremists Tied to Deadlier Toll than Jihadists in U.S. Since 9/11.

You are far more likely to die on a school campus or in the city by gun violence than to be killed by a terrorist. The statistics from 2004-2013 from the Center for Disease Control and the State Department show that: in 2013 alone, 33,636 people in America were killed by gun violence. That’s more than all Americans killed by terrorists on U.S soil in the last 14 years, the September 11th attacks included; 2,977 people died in the 9/11 attacks, and 74 have been killed since by terrorists.

Here is another surprising statistic from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Every day, almost 30 people in the United States die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired    driver. This amounts to one death every 51 minutes.

According to CDC, prescription meds are more likely to kill you than a car crash. More than 100,00 people have been killed in gun homicides and more than 400,000 in car accidents.    

You are more likely to die from falling off the ladder putting up Christmas tree lights than from a terrorist attack.

It is estimated that one in four refugees today is Syrian, with over 23 million outside their country and a further seven million internally displaced within it; around half of the total population. I was born in Oklahoma City, but it is not reasonable to think that I would be associated with Timothy McVeigh, anymore than the men, women and children seeking refuge from imminent danger from their own Syrian countrymen are all terrorists. Soon enough, there will be no subjects for the terrorist kings to rule.

I would like to give kudos to governors Jay Inslee of Washington and Gary Herbert of Utah for their voices of reason, sensibility and humanity in response to the negative outcry to keep Syrian immigrants from coming into our country. The United States is a country of refugees...remember the Pilgrims? The United States is not a small country with limited resources; there is room for more. Refugees have contributed to the foundation of our country with labor and brains to build a nation that prides itself for its preservation of human rights. We are a global community and we are not alone in this fight against terrorism; let us not trade our humanity for rhetoric, or let fear close our hearts or harden our heads to those who need sanctuary.