Lt. Col. Renford filled three teacups and sat across from Richard and Mrs. Leslie. “I’m sorry Rita couldn’t attend our session today. I’ll make a note to schedule our next family meeting after school lets out.” He moved the sugar and creamer closer to Richard’s mother. “She’s a senior this year, I believe.”
“Yes, and I wish Richard would go back to finish high school.” Mrs. Leslie lifted her cup and breathed in the aroma. “He had so little left.”
“Three years, Ma. They’d make me retake the entire tenth grade.”
“You could do it in less than three years.” She faced Renford. “The principal let him skip ninth grade.”
“That was because my country school in Wisconsin already covered all that stuff.” Not ready to rehash this family argument, Richard shot a quick glance at the colonel behind a veil of steam from his raised cup.
Renford acknowledged by interjecting, “It’s edifying that some rural schools excelled. We hear so much about others less accountable.”
Back on a comfortable track, Richard said, “Mrs. Munson, the lady where I lived during my seventh and eighth grades, taught at the one room school house half a mile down the road. She helped with my homework after I finished my chores. She stressed reading for comprehension. Everything I want to know, I get from books.” He caught the colonel’s glance and then lowered his gaze. “Even the Army’s manual for paratroopers.”
“Required reading, no doubt, when in training.” Renford blundered right into Richard’s trap.
An opportunity to shock. “Apparently my drill instructor hadn’t read it. He reneged when I challenged him to a duel under the rules of combat.”
Renford raised his hand palm out. “Perhaps something we can discuss at a future session. I doubt your mother cares to hear those kinds of details.”
A pseudo-benign smile. “Tell us, Richard, what’s been going on in your life lately?”
Richard nearly blurted horseback riding with a New York model, his most recent secret kept from Ma. More fun and much healthier than useless and painful sessions with Renford.
Renford glanced from Richard to his mother. Not getting a response, he answered his own question. “Between dance lessons and employment at that freight company, Richard’s been too busy to meet every week.”
Richard anticipated Renford leaking this bit of information, and braced himself against Ma’s reaction.
She faced the colonel. “His life of wine, women, and song, has become wine, women, and dancing. An improvement, but his staggering into the house night after night concerns me.”
Not the response Richard feared. He expected Ma’s demanding where he went on those days he’d ask for cab fare to get to Ft. Snelling.
“Ma, I’m twenty two years old. I don’t need a curfew.” Now he’d endure another lecture. Living at home you follow house rules.
Renford took a different approach. “Perhaps, when you save enough money you can rent your own place, or even buy one through the GI Bill.”
The suggestion caught Richard off guard. He had no interest in going out on his own, but Renford wouldn’t get off the topic.
“My gosh, you’ve lived away from home much of your young life, totally independent on that sheep ranch in Montana when just a teenager.”
Richard blurted, “And jumping into combat when twenty.” After all, he had been wounded and needed a safe place to heal.
“I’ve agreed to skirt issues involving combat, and I don’t think we should begin today in front of your mother.”
“I work and I dance. Maybe have a few drinks. You asked what’s happening, and that’s about it.”
His mother scowled. “The freight company calls you whenever they got something to unload at the warehouse. It’s not steady work.”
“I shuttle trucks around the yard and sometimes make deliveries. George, my boss, likes how I handle their pre-war Reo with the chain drive. I told him I would drive it all the way to California and back, if their other trucks couldn’t keep up with freight orders.”
Renford interrupted. “That might not be wise for a number of reasons.”
Not for discussion. He stared into the clock while the voices of mother and psychiatrist continued their lopsided conversation. His mind delivered him to different place.
Richard spurred ahead of Mary Lou’s mare, and they rode single file through the narrow streets of Swede Hollow. He pulled up alongside her when they crossed the gully and stopped near the mouth of a cave He dismounted and lashed his reins to a branch. “The horses will stay put while we explore.”
He held her mare’s halter, and when he reached to take the reins, Mary Lou kicked at him, foot still in the stirrup. “Are you suggesting we crawl into that hole in the ground like a couple of Neanderthals?”
“You were excited about the adventure last night at the ballroom.”
“While you swung me around the floor, yes, but out here astride a ton of horse flesh presents quite a different perspective.” She flashed a flirtatious smile. “Now if I were straddling a man one tenth as heavy, that would be my kind of adventure.”
“Two hundred pounds.”
“One tenth of a ton would be 200 pounds.”
“You did the math. Good for you Einstein.” She gazed down at him. “Don’t be so literal. I meant it as a joke.”
Not sure why, he felt let down.
“If I get off, how will I get back on without that little stool we used at the stable?”
“I can boost you back up.”
Her silent stare felt interminable. He intended to expand their activities beyond dancing, but wondered if horseback riding had been such a good idea.
“Okay, I’ll be a sport. Stand back, I’m coming down, but not into the cave.” Her gaze traveled between Richard, the ground, and each foot still clamped tight against the horse’s sides. She froze in the saddle.
“You dismount the exact reverse of how you got up there.” He tugged on her right pant leg. “Slide this foot loose and swing it behind the saddle.”
A couple of her knee slaps against the belly of the horse and Richard struggled to keep it from plodding forward. He released her shoe stuck in the stirrup and guided her leg across the horses’ back. With one foot still in the stirrup and the other on the ground she whispered, “Help?”
Richard released her foot and lashed the reins. He made a broad gesture.
“This area’s still called Swede Hollow, but a bunch of Mexicans have pretty well taken over.” He pointed north. “You get a good view of Schmidt Brewery and the Hamm Mansion from down here.”
“That’s the second time you said Mexicans with that certain inflection.” She brushed the dust from her slacks. “You don’t like them, do you.”
Richard had never considered if he liked or disliked the residents of Swede Hollow. “They just happen to be the latest group to settle there. The Irish were here before them, came after the Swedes left.” He reached for her hand. “If there are any Americans I dislike, it would be the Irish. My Ma’s English.” As if that settled the matter.
She accepted his hand and followed his lead. “All good and well, but keep me away from that cave.” She peered into the abyss. “Who knows what creatures lurk down there.”
“Bugs, snakes, crickets, and one giant lizard.” He squeezed her hand. “Let’s go.”
“If I get bitten, I’m holding you responsible.” The cave darkened and, as they progressed, its only source of light source grew smaller and smaller. “That’s it. No more daylight, and I’m out of here.”
“Wait.” Richard stepped into a niche and pawed the ledge until he found the candle in its holder.
A flash of light and an unstable and oversized shadow jiggled on the adjacent wall.
“Richard!” Her shriek awakened a flutter of wings, their shadows attacked the wall monster. “Richard, that’s not funny.”
As if leading a funeral dirge, he approached, the candle flickering in front of him giving his face a ghostly appearance.
“Now, cut that out.” Anger had replaced fear in her voice.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to give you a heart attack.”
She began to pound his chest until hot wax splattered. “Damn you.”
“Hey, it was only a joke.”
She stifled a giggle. “I peed.”
“Right here, in my pants, I pissed.” She grabbed his arm and turned him toward the entrance. “I want you to ride like the wind and get me clean clothes.”
He faced her. “I…I don’t know…” His mind reeled. “I can…you can have my underwear.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” She took off her slacks and stepped out of her panties. “You can keep these as a reminder of our last time together.” She fitted them onto his head, and broke out laughing. “Serves you right for frightening me.”
Richard peeled the silk garment from his face, then pressed it to his cheek. “You didn’t wet yourself.”
“No, but the expression on your face was precious. I would have peed if I had thought of it in time, just to teach you a lesson.” She unbuttoned her blouse. “As long as I’m half undressed anyhow…”
Panties in one hand and a flickering candle in the other, Richard cowered. As with dancing, the female shouldn’t take the lead. He hadn’t brought her to the cave for sex.
She unsnapped her bra and grabbed her panties back. “At least have the decency to drop your pants.” She opened his belt buckle. “And my butt isn’t the one that will touch the cold floor.”
Why not oblige? With his pants caught at knee level and trigger finger stuck through the loop on the candle holder, he beckoned with his head.
“Follow me to a place where neither of us has to lay on the ground.” He shuffled into the darkness, a dancing glow from the flame reflecting off moist walls.
She laughed. “Okay, Little Jack Horner. Where’s your corner?”
He didn’t like the image. “Just a few more steps.”
“If that candle goes out, you better be ready with a match. My Ronson’s still in the saddle bag.”
Around the bend under a narrow shaft of light sat an army cot. Richard set the candle on a ledge amid beer bottles and fast food wrappers and let his pants drop to his shoes. “Me and Virgil—you’re gonna have to meet him soon—created that skylight. We noticed water dripping when it rained, so we bored a shaft through the overhead limestone.”
“I’m obviously not your first sexual conquest in this horrid little love nest.”
“That’s not why we did it.” Suddenly the area felt contaminated. We want to get a permit to grow mushrooms down here. Problem is, nobody actually owns property in Swede Hollow. In the gully near the creek some Mexicans…” He decided not to state a disclaimer. “…created a community garden, and they respect each other’s produce. I’m not sure how the honor system would work inside the cave. Could be some vandalism.”
Mary Lou shook her clothes loose from the ball she’d been carrying and started to dress. Sarcasm in her voice, “You turn a girl off as easily as you turn one on. I loved you on the dance floor. I’m starting to hate you down here.”
Standing in his shorts, an image of a dead Jap flashed through his mind. “I’ll take you back to the stable.” The kill—her kill—had aroused the female officer who accompanied him into the jungle for sex, but left him feeling as wretched then as he felt now.
Riding side-by-side out of Swede Hollow, Richard said, “Are we still on for tonight? We don’t need much practice, but we have to be absolutely sure of ourselves next week at the contest.”
Mary Lou nudged her mare ahead, and Richard allowed her to lead all the way back to the stable. Either she hadn’t heard him, or she avoided his question. Richard signed for use of the horses—he’d be shoveling shit for a month to cover the rental.
As he held her car door open, he again asked about dance practice, dreading her response.
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to join you for the contest.” She slid behind the wheel staring into the windshield.
Richard clung to the open door dumbfounded.
“Come inside and sit down so I can explain.”
“I can hear you from out here.” He kept an escape available.
“My dance partner, José Mendez, is coming in from Guadalajara, and I paid the entry fee in his and my name.” She thumped the steering wheel with her palms. “I’m sorry, Richard, but José and I made this commitment a long time ago.”
“You never told me about José.”
“And I never asked about your girlfriends. We just hit it off on the dance floor and had some sex.”
“Let me guess: Your Mexican friend is over six feet tall and weighs about one tenth that horse you rode today.” He gave the door a slight shove and pressed it until the latch clicked. He turned and walked away.