Flat on his stomach, hands covering his head, Richard quivered and then began to sob.
“Are you okay?” Rita’s voice accompanied a wedge of daylight that shot across the floor of his darkened bedroom.
“Don’t come in!” one hand swiped tears from his eyes, the other grabbed the sheet off the bed to cover himself.
Rita ignored her brother’s command, as he should have expected from a teenaged sister who reported everything to Ma.
“What happened? All I did was knock, and then the ruckus. Did you fall out of bed?”
Richard clamped his forehead as if it were a pimple about to burst. “Nah, I slept this way last night,” he lied. “Cooler than in bed.” Mind cleared of haze but not the pain, he had yet to control or even understand his violent reaction to unexpected loud noises.
She seldom gave much attention to her brother’s strange behavior, an issue his family tiptoed around, literally, something guys at the bar found funny when they’d sneak up and clap their hands behind his back. He’d get over it, no thanks to the psychiatrist he’d been forced to see every week, or lose his disability pay. After a few beers, loud noise didn’t bother, and the guys would lose interest in trying to startle him. His bigger concern, the nightmares, screams that brought his mother running to his room. He denied his single overwhelming fear, even to himself.
“What do you want?”
“There are two soldiers at the door waiting to talk to you.”
Richard jumped to his feet, sheet dropping to the floor. Rita turned away as he covered the slit in his boxer shorts with his saluting hand; eyes fixed on his sister’s back as he stepped into his pants. “What do they want?” An unnecessary question since he skipped yesterday’s appointment. He’d only stopped at Frankie and Johnnies for a quick beer, and one thing led to another.
“Are they MP’s?”
“How should I know? They just said I should get you up.”
“You told them I was still in bed?” He glanced around for the clock, but last week he’d smashed it against the wall because the ticking annoyed him. “What time is it?”
“Two o’clock.” She slowly turned to face him. “I was going to get you up anyway, because you promised we could go to Sears & Roebuck to order Ma her new washing machine.”
“That might have to wait.” He tossed the sheet back onto the bed. “Tell them I’m sick.”
Rita stepped out into the hall.
“No, wait. I’ll go, but give me a minute.”
She stuck her head back into the room. “I’ll tell them you’re on your way, but hurry. They’re scary.”
“You’re lucky I had an opening this late in the day. I wouldn’t want to report you AWOL.” Lt. Col. Renford gestured for Richard to sit in the usual client’s chair across the desk from him.
“I told you, I’m not a soldier anymore.”
“Yes, but under care of the US Army, and drawing compensation.”
“A small token for eighteen continuous months of combat, and the explosion during mop-up that earned me a ticket home aboard a hospital ship. What I do now is my business.”
“Your business is to let go of what happened in the South Pacific, and my job is to help you. Both our paychecks depend on the effort we put toward this goal.”
“What do I have to do to show what combat did to my head? Go out in the street and kill someone?”
“What I want is for you to stop killing yourself a little bit at a time. But for now, I want to hear about your life before the war.”
“Hasn’t the government got access to my court record? It kept me from going to jail, which I’m sure I’d be out of by now without this dark cloud over my head.”
“Dark cloud. A good analogy. Why don’t you release thunder and lightning and let loose the downpour locked up in there.”
Richard repeated the only statement that usually got a rise out of the Colonel. “Would it please you if I went out onto the street and shot someone?” He half stood and plopped back onto the chair. “That’s what they trained me to do.”
“Just the enemy, and right now we have no enemies.”
“You haven’t been in my shoes, lately.”
“No, but I would like you to step out of them, take a chance and go barefoot for a while. Let down your guard.” He glanced at the closed folder on his desk. “Last week we talked about Montana. I gather that was a bright time in your young life.”
“Sheep don’t mess with your head.”
Fists clinched, “Stop calling me soldier.”
Gazes locked, “Then stop acting like one, just itching for a fight.”
Richard blinked, refocused his stare into empty space, and, biding time, willed his anger to recede. A rustle of papers from the menacing manila folder perched strategically at the middle of the desk, Renford, no doubt, searching for an incident that would break into his safe place. It didn’t take long.
“Would you really have killed that farmer with a pitchfork? You were only what, twelve years old at the time?”
The puppeteer had jerked the correct string, and Richard relinquished his defense. “He slugged me first, and not with an open hand like Ma had to do sometimes.”
“You gave your mother cause to resort to corporal punishment?”
Safe for the moment, but the pitchfork incident would come up again and bite his backsides. “She had to because Pa wasn’t there to punish us. He left us when I was only five years old. Rita wasn’t even born, yet.”
“What did you do that made her mad?”
“Skip school mostly. One time in the fifth grade the principal called her to a meeting in his office.”
“Why did you hate school?”
“I liked school, but I had other responsibilities. If I left my shoeshine spot for more than a few hours, I’d have to fight to get it back. Ma needed that money for food.”
“So, you were the man in the house?”
“Edward was older, but he was sent away.” Talking felt okay, almost good. “He got me started shining shoes.” Richard glanced at his boots, still military as were his dominant characteristics. Damned if he’d go barefoot just to make a point.
“I had the best spot between 3M and the pub where the higher-ups went for lunch. I’d get them shined so they could flirt with the waitresses or when they decided to shape up and return after an extended lunch. Late afternoon I’d get a few, but if I wanted to score big, I’d have to hide from the curfew cops until some half drunk guy would leave the bar after dark. They were my biggest tippers.”
“What happened when you got caught?”
“I was forced to join the Army.”
“When still in grade school?”
“No, but that’s what it finally came to? Cops dragged me home. My mother…”
A trap! A quick glance at the clock and back to the pair of eyes penetrating his…soul?
Richard’s vision blurred. He mumbled, “Crossed the line.”
“Who?” Stare intensified.
“I…she said…” Cotton filled his mouth. A flash of light and a presence in the doorway.
“Bring Richard a glass of water.”
Eyes glued to the door, Richard conjured the St. Paul cop bursting open the door to his mother’s apartment, her vagrant nine-year-old son in tow. Grip on Richard’s collar relaxed, and a fatherly hand settled on the misguided kid’s shoulder. “Your boy should not be out roaming the streets after dark.” A not too gentle shove into the kitchen. “Your son was accosting business men outside the St. Paul Hotel. If you recall, last week it was outside the Landmark Post Office.”
“I got a business to take care of and that’s where I find my best customers,” Policeman number two held the shoe shine kit with both hands. “You better give that back. Ma needs all the money I can earn.”
Rita, buried her face in Ma’s apron.
“Is there a Mr. Leslie?” Cop number one overstepped, crossed the line.
“He’s dead! I will take care of this matter.”
Cops gone, door slammed. “My dad is not dead,”
“He is to us. Next time, don’t stay out on the street so late.”
Richard glared at the Renford’s secretary too eager to make him drink. “I couldn’t abandon my hard fought-for spot unattended before cocktail hour ended at the hotel” He grabbed the glass, gulped a single swallow and set it down. Pleading eyes sought Renford’s attention and then affixed to the door until the secretary left the room.
“I’d drop to my knees in front of a guy waiting for the valet to bring his car around and snap the polishing cloth across the toe of his shoe. If he didn’t jerked his foot back or push me away, I’d won, probably cheated the valet out of his tip.”
A nine-year-old Richard demonstrated his shoeshine story to a rapt audience of one. “I’d grab a tin of brown or black polish and say, ‘These scuff marks will need a little extra work.’ When the guys car arrived, I’d hold out my hand and say, “Thank you, Sir” even if the loose change had been intended for the valet.
Occasionally, a hand would pull out an empty pocket lining, but that didn’t deter me. Disappointment etched on my face, I’d keep an extended hand until he either got into his car or pulled out his wallet for paper money.”
Embarrassed by his nostalgic outburst, Richard focused on the water in front of him but didn’t drink.
“Are you saying your mother condoned your violating curfew?”
“She knew the score. ‘Fight your own battles,’ she’d tell me.” Her voice resonated in his. “‘Run away from a fight with a bloody nose, don’t come home crying for sympathy. I’ll just bloody it some more.’”
“How did that make you feel?”
Richard sat up. “Like a man, in front of my sisters. In that small town where we used to live—when my dad was still around—kids down the street from our house used to beat me up. I was only four or five. My sisters told me to go to their house, throw rocks at them playing in the back yard, and then run like hell. They chased me, and the girls ambushed them. They didn’t bother me after that. By the time we moved to St. Paul, my sisters got too old for such shenanigans, and I had to fend for myself.”
“What was it like, living in a house with all those women?”
“Isabel and Hazel got married and moved, Margaret eloped and ran off to California, and Edna died in a car accident. Only me and Rita lived with Ma. Edward too, but he wasn’t home much.”
“Were you assigned household chores?”
“I did some cooking and baking. Ma said I’d make a good chef some day. I did most of the shopping. The butcher down the street had eyes on Ma, so she avoided going to his shop. She’d send me there to buy a dime’s worth of hamburger, partly to show how poor we were. Then, I’d ask for bones about to be thrown to the dogs. He’d pull a hock out from the cooler and trim off maybe half the meat. ‘Tell your Ma to make some soup.’”
“It galled me to have him think Ma only made soup, like Tiny Tim’s family in Dicken’s Christmas story.” Richard noticed the pen in Renford’s hand scratch a few words onto his note pad.
“Ma was a good cook and so were the older girls. That’s how they got their husbands interested, to my way of thinking.”
He avoided eye contact. “Ma is a proud English woman—parents immigrated just before the Great War; that’s what they called the World War One. She set a fine table, even when food supply ran short near the end of the month. Table cloth and place mats, all washed by hand.”
He remembered his promise to Rita. “I’m supposed to be buying a washing machine instead of rattling away here.” Out of the corner of his eye, he checked for the Colonel’s attention. “See, I do some good with the Government’s money. Don’t just piss it all away.”
His mind returned to his mother’s table; knives, forks, and spoons all in their proper positions alongside the plates, water glass, and tea cup on either side.
He leaned forward and peered into the officer’s cup on the desk, its milky residue puke yellow. “Ma taught us to drink tea, but the army insists on coffee, makes fun of the Limeys with their tea time. I remember once on Negros Island, I was battling the head-high and razor-sharp Kunai grass, but you wouldn’t know about that.”
He took in a satisfying breath. “I heard voices, not Japs, I could smell them a mile away. A squad of Limey’s had trampled an area to take their tea. I took a break from my hunt—I used to track down Japs like game back in Wisconsin—and we had a spot of tea together.”
A quick glance to check if his slip of the tongue about a war-related incident might have found its way to the note pad only to reappear in the form of a question later. The pitchfork incident would be easier to discuss.
“You made reference to Dickens.” The pen scratched out words. “Did you read a lot when you were young?”
“Not until after Juvenile Court sent me to Wisconsin. It cost me my shoeshine operation, but I did learn to read in the process.”
“Yet you wanted to harm the farmer who took you in.”
That guy didn’t take me in. He negotiated with the court for a slave to work on his farm for free.” Richard shifted his weight. “Mr. Munson….” His frown relaxed. “Mr. Munson and his wife, Bertha, took me in after the court declared my former placement too dangerous.”
Richard checked for Renford’s silent go ahead expression. “They didn’t treat me like a hired hand, and I worked hard; got up for chores at five, back in the house for a hot breakfast at seven, and then off on my horse to the country school in time for the bell at nine. After school I’d jump back on my horse and tend my trap line.”
Renford’s expression resembled that of a cat about to pounce on a field mouse, but Richard continued. “Got five dollars for skunk fur, but skinning one was a bit of a problem. Bertha made me undress outside before letting me into the house.”
Renford’s mouse seems to have escaped the cat. “At night after chores, Bertha would help me with my home work. She taught me to read for comprehension, not just sounding out the words. By the time I returned to St. Paul, I had read Dickens, knew my geography, and tested high enough in math to skip the ninth grade. Country school ended at the eighth grade.”
“Why did you leave the Munson’s?”
“To dodge the draft.”
“At age twelve?”
“Not me but his twenty-year-old son. If I had stayed on, Munson couldn’t claim hardship to operate the farm. My mother didn’t have that option when I got drafted.”
“It says here …” he pointed to the file folder, “you enlisted. Had to make an exception because you were still a minor.”
“Read further. The Army wasn’t the only institution on my case.”
“Your mother didn’t try to intercede?”
“With only one teenager left at home, she had no grounds to claim hardship.” Muscles in his face tightened. “When Edward got killed in Italy, she requested her only son be returned to civilian life, but the government claimed they had too much invested in my training.” He glanced at his hands. “I must have signed off on that right when I joined the paratroopers after basic training.” His spirits brightened. “Got an extra fifty bucks a month on top of combat pay. More money than any foot soldier of my rank, and even a few officers.”
“Yes, of course.” A shuffling of papers, a pause followed by a glare. “You mustered out of the Army less than a year ago with thousands of dollars back pay, and God only knows for what else. What did you do with all that money?”
He had penetrated the colonel’s shield. “Raw whiskey, wild women, and fast cars. I don’t know, the rest just sort of got pissed away.”
Face blotchy. “But your mother will get her washing machine.”
“Yeah, and a Frigidaire, too.” He will have to borrow some of Rita’s babysitting money. “Let’s get on with what you called me in here for. I gotta see a man about a horse.” Sixty of them, all crammed under the hood of a Thirty nine Ford.
“That’s it. We’ve used up the time. Next week be here pronto.” He placed the folder into his brief case. “You’re dismissed…” A grin slid across his face. “Soldier.”