“Ma, sit down.” Richard pulled the chair back from the table. “Rita, make Ma sit. The colonel might walk through that door any minute.”
“Can’t wait to get home and tack this etching up on the wall.” Richard’s mother unwound the scroll, a gravestone-sized sheet of white paper she had bummed from the butcher on East Seventh Street.” She glanced at her teenage daughter. “Which room do you think?”
Richard shoved the chair back against the table, not wanting the colonel to make any assumptions about his relationship with his mother to bring up at a future session. Meeting at least once a month for a year pretty well used up all topics he agreed to discuss. “Keep it out of my bedroom. I got enough stuff bugging me without opening my eyes every morning to a sketch of my brother’s grave stone.”
“Come, help me keep this from rolling back up so I can read his epitaph”
Richard caught Rita’s attention and motioned for her to hold the paper open for Ma. He sat across from where his psychiatrist would probably sit. He wished they could meet in his office, but his secretary thought it would be crowded.
With her finger, his mother traced the shaded etchings, the scrapings of charcoal from pens she purchased at Woolworths where she insisted Richard stop on their way to Fort Snelling. She read in a soft voice, “Edward A. Leslie, Minnesota, Private, 363 Infantry, World War Two, born May fifteenth, nineteen hundred and twenty one.” She brushed back a tear and whispered, “Died October thirteenth, nineteen hundred and forty four.”
Richard grimaced. The darn fool went in as a medic but volunteered, actually argued his way into the infantry. Caught a bullet the first day at Monte Casino, his wife from one week’s leave claimed the ten thousand dollar Army insurance policy that his Ma would have been entitled to.
“Oh, my Edward! I knew he was dead the moment it happened.” She gave Richard a teary-eyed glance, but he pretended not to notice. “Got the telegram a week later, but I felt his dying in my sleep—his crying out to a mother who couldn’t comfort him. When I awoke, he was gone.”
Yeah, and tracking her remaining son in the Philippines, letter demanding revenge. No matter that a German shot Edward. Enemy is enemy. As if the number of dead Japs hadn’t already evened the score. A hundred more she demanded and wanted proof. What? Ears? Noses? penises? From my mother? I chalked it off as grief, yet I couldn’t help myself. I began hunting and counting and…
His mother dropped her edge of the paper and shook her finger at Richard. “I fought for you.” She paused until he made eye contact. “Wrote I don’t remember how many letters. Came out here at Snelling to state my case, no sole surviving son should remain in harm’s way. I got the attention of the base commander, General Something or Another. He couldn’t protect you because you volunteered—were warned but no, you wanted adventure, glory.”
Rita remained guardian to her brother’s headstone.
Richard mumbled, “And fifty dollars a month jump pay, and fifty more combat pay.”
“And what good does that money do now. I got a Maytag and a Frigidaire and a son who has to borrow money from his widowed mother to carouse the streets every night.”
“Pa ain’t dead, Ma.” Richard returned his gaze to the table.
“To me he is. To his children he is.”
The door swung open and, on impulse, Richard stood. “Colonel, this is my mother and my sister, Rita.” Embarrassed and defeated, he sat, locked into an empty stare.
Lt. Col. Renford stood at attention acknowledging the older woman and then her daughter, each with a nod. “Mrs. Leslie. Rita.” He stepped closer and extended his hand toward the sketch. “I see you’ve visited Richard’s brother’s grave.” He shook his head. “A terrible sacrifice for any mother to have to make for her country. You have my deepest sympathy.”
From the corner of his eye, Richard caught the familiar quiver of his mother’s chin, forewarning a beating when he was a child, but just frustration since he moved back home. Recently, being slapped would have felt better.
Rita rolled the paper, took her mother’s arm, and seated her at the table, placing the scroll on her lap.
“One year ago this week Richard mustered out of the army, returning to your home a war hero. As in most cases, this comes with a price. Time to adjust to civilian life varies depending on the amount of time a soldier had been involved in combat. The 503rd, Richard’s regiment, experienced continuous combat for eighteen consecutive months.”
Richard’s mother interrupted. “How many men?” She had yet to extend eye contact to the colonel since they sat down.
“Pardon?” Renford’s startled response.
“How many were in Richard’s regiment?”
“Richard, I believe you could give your mother a better estimate than I could.”
Richard resented being drawn into a conversation that smelled like a trap. “About three thousand, Ma. You knew the size of my outfit.”
Mrs. Leslie shot her son a grimace and then glared at the colonel. “Are all of them meeting with psychiatrists since the war ended?”
“Any of them who came home on a hospital ship sedated are probably under psychiatric care.” He glanced at Richard. “At least those lucky enough to have survived their wounds.”
“I don’t need to be reminded of a son who never came home.” She grabbed her scrolled headstone and shook it at the colonel like a pointer.
“Mrs. Leslie. You may not believe this, but I can understand…feel your grief.”
Richard selected a more comfortable situation, but his mind refused to be transported out of the room.
Renford’s voice cracked. “I, too, had a son who didn’t come home. His ship was torpedoed, all hands lost.”
Mrs. Leslie lowered her pointer and put it back on her lap. “No grave marker?”
“Yes, there is a stone, but he’s not under it.” He paused, probably for effect. “A sailor accepts that possibility just like a paratrooper accepts the double if not triple danger he may encounter.”
She shook her head. “Why can’t we settle our differences without sending young men to fight?” Her chin didn’t quiver but tensed with recognizable determination. “Why’d you require me and my daughter to come today?”
“I hope invite was the word I used.” His sudden glance pulled Richard out of his race car and brought him back to the table. “This week Richard celebrates his first anniversary home from the war. I thought a gathering of those who love him would be appropriate.” His expression, one of victory. “That you do love him is evident by your presence here, by your accepting him back into your family.”
“Of course he belongs at home. At least until he finds a wife to take with him to his own place. Sometimes I worry that might not happen.”
“There aren’t women in his circle of friends?”
“Many. He hangs out in bars and drinks and dances and God only knows what else, but never brings a girl home to meet his mother.”
Renford didn’t respond before Richard acknowledged her glare. “Ma, I’m not ready to settle down. There’s too much stuff going on. I can’t even keep a job.”
“You aren’t making delivers for Mr. Kelley any longer,” the first break in the colonel’s countenance. “I thought the matter got settled at the trial.”
“He quit that job weeks ago,” a wave of her hand, flippancy in her tone.
Richard had never seen an expression of success dissolve so quickly as on Lt. Col. Renford’s face. “We talked about the problem I had after the incident in the back alley. I nearly killed that guy.”
“But you’re still on good terms with your old boss?”
“Yeah, we play cribbage at The Rusty Scupper a couple times each week. He set me up with a couple of construction jobs but they fell through.”
“Why haven’t you mentioned this before?”
“I never thought of the Army as an employment agency?”
“I’ll look into the GI Bill for some vocational training options. In the meantime, let’s celebrate your successes.”
“I ain’t dead and I haven’t killed anyone. Yeah, let’s celebrate.”
“Rita, we’ve been doing what adults seem to do best, blabber on and neglect the young people. How different is your life since your brother came home?”
“I had to give up my bedroom because Richard needed the one with two windows.”
“That’s not the reason, at least not the entire reason I sleep in the attic.” Richard regretted not accepting Rita’s two-window explanation, but all attention zoomed in on him. “Sometimes I have nightmares and wake up…”
“He screams, but he doesn’t like it to have his mother come to comfort him. I don’t mind, but he wants privacy.” She gave the psychiatrist a wistful glance. “Isn’t there something you can give him for bad dreams?”
“Have you been taking your medication, Richard?”
“Usually, but I forget sometimes.”
“He doesn’t forget. He comes home drunk and hardly makes it to his room.” Nearly in tears, Rita continued. “I’m sorry, Richard, but I want you to get some help.”
“I can see we still have some unresolved issues. I’d like you to start coming here every week like when we first started these sessions. Since you are between jobs right now, I’ll see if we can boost your disability back to at least fifty percent.”
Richard squirmed. “How about meeting every other week? That way I can spend more time looking for work. Frank can help me.” He brightened. “As a matter of fact, he offered me another full time job just last week.”
“And you first mention it now? I’d been home praying you’d find something since your disability got cut back.”
“You’d be praying a whole lot more if I took that job.” A brief rush of pride. “Frank wants me to be his body guard. He’s earned a few enemies in his business, and he thinks my size would confuse anyone who might attack him.”
“He’d use you for bait?”
“They would be less tempted to shoot him, but move in close because they would think I’d be easy to overcome.”
“I don’t want my son part of the mob.”
“You didn’t want me to be part of the Army either, but here I am.”
“You were wise to refuse the job, and not just because of the danger. It would set your treatment back to when the war ended. I want to see you a week from today to work through some of these issues. I will check into the GI Bill.”
“And don’t forget to raise his disability pay. He doesn’t make enough to cover his share of the rent.”
Renford stood at attention. “Mrs. Leslie, I will do everything I can for your son, but he has to cooperate. I would like to see you—and his sister—on a regular basis, maybe once every month. We will work as a team to bring this son back to you minus the damage the war has caused.”