Read an Excerpt
I had a cousin, Randall, killed on Iwo Jima. Have I told you? The last man killed on the island, they said; killed after the fighting had ceased and the rest of the soldiers had already been transported away to hospitals or to bodybags. Killed mopping up. That's what they called it. A mopping-up operation.
I remember Mother sat down at the kitchen table when she read the news. It came in the form of a letter from Randall's father, Great-Uncle Sterling, written in hard dark ink, the letters slanted and angry as if they were aware of the meaning of the words they formed. I was in the kitchen when Mother opened it and I took the letter and read it myself. It said that Randall was presumed dead, though they had no information of the whereabouts of his body; that he had reported to whomever he was intended to report to after the surrender of the Japanese, that he had, from all accounts, disappeared.
I didn't know him too well but had visited him as a young girl. They lived across the bay from Baltimore, outside Sudlersville. No town, really, just a crossroad and a post office and farms hemmed in by cornfields. Theirs was a large brick house set far back from the road, entirely wrong for that landscape, like it had been hauled up from Savannah or Louisville to prove a point. It stood in constant shadow at the end of an oak-lined drive and I remember our first visit, how we drove through that tunnel of oak slowly, the day blustery, cool. Sterling was not what we in those days called jovial. His wife had died years before, leaving him, old enough to be a grandfather, alone to care for his only child. He had long rebuked Mother's invitations but for some reason had scrawled a note in his Christmas card that year -- this was before the war, '39 or '40 -- asking us to join them for Easter dinner.
Mother wore the same Easter hat and spring coat she kept in tissue in the back of the hallway linen closest, but she had sewed each of us a new Easter dress and insisted Daddy wear a clean shirt and tie. For him this was nothing short of sacrifice. Rita said he acted like those clothes might shatter if he breathed.
Daddy turned off the engine and we all sat, listening to the motor ticking. If Mother had lost her determination and suggested we back out then and there, we would have agreed. "Well," she said, smoothing out the lap of her dress. It was what she did to buy time. We girls weren't moving anyway. We were tired enough; it was a long drive from Pennsylvania.
"Wake me up when it's over," Rita said. She always had a line like that. She curled up and thrust her long legs across Betty and me, picking a fight. Betty grabbed her foot and twisted it until Rita shrieked For the love of Pete! Mother ignored them, reapplying the lipstick she kept tucked up the sleeve of her spring coat. I looked out the window. I'm not sure about Daddy. No one wanted to make the first move, Betty twisting Rita's foot harder and Rita shrieking For the love of Pete, get your gosh darn hands off me! and Mother jerking around and telling Rita to stop using that language and to act her age.
The last reprimand struck Rita to the core. She sat up quickly and yanked the door open.
Did I say oak? It might have been walnut. I believe at that point, standing outside the car, we heard the comforting thwack of a walnut on a tin roof, the sound popping the balloon Rita had inflated, releasing us to walk, like a family, to the front door, where Randall already stood, waiting.
He had some sort of sweet-smelling water brushed into his hair. This I remember. It was the first thing you would have noticed. He also had red hair, red as mine, and freckles over most of his face. He stood there, swallowed by the doorway, his hand out in greeting. His were the most delicate fingers I had ever seen on a boy, though he was nearly a teenager by then. I have wondered since whether he polished his nails, since they were shiny, almost wet. Remember he was a son without a mother, which is a terrible thing to be, and that Great-Uncle Sterling was as hard as his name.
Anyway, Rita and Betty paid him little mind. They followed Mother and Daddy in to find Sterling and we were left, quite suddenly, alone. Randall shrugged as if I had proposed a game of cards and asked if I wanted to see his room. No one seemed much concerned about us, so I said sure. We went down a water-stained hallway he called the Gallery of Maps, after some hallway he had read about in the Vatican lined with frescoes of maps from before the world was round. Anyway, he stood there showing me the various countries, pointing out what he called troublespots.
I can still picture those fingers, tapering some, and the palest white at the tips, as if he had spent too long in the bath.
We continued, passing one of those old-fashioned intercom contraptions they used to have to ring servants. Randall worked a few of the mysterious oiled levers and then spoke, gravely, into the mouthpiece. "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat," he said. Churchill, of course, though at the time I had no idea. I simply stood there waiting, watching as Randall hung up the mouthpiece, shrugged again, and opened a door to a back staircase so narrow we had to turn sideways to make the corner.
"They were smaller in the old days," Randall said, and then, perhaps because I didn't respond, he stopped and turned toward me.
"Who?" I said.
"People," he said.
"Oh," I said, waiting. I had never been in the dark with a boy his age.
"Carry on," he said.
We reached a narrow door and pushed out, onto another landing, continuing down a second, longer hallway. The house seemed comprised of a hundred little boxes, each with tiny doors and passages, eaves to duck under, one-flight stairways to climb. Gloomy, all of it, though Randall didn't appear to notice. He talked all the while of how slaves had traveled through here on the underground railway from Louisiana, and how one family had lived in this house behind a false wall he was still trying to find. He said he knew this not from words but from knowing. He said he saw their ghosts sometimes -- there were five of them -- a mother and a father and three children, he couldn't tell what. But he'd find their hiding place, he said. He had the instinct.
I'm not sure whether I was more interested in hearing about slaves in secret rooms or hearing about their ghosts. This was Maryland, remember, the east side. At that time, if you took the ferry to Annapolis, the colored sat starboard, the whites port, and docking felt like the flow of two rivers, neither feeding the other. In Pennsylvania colored people were colored people, and one of your grandfather's best friends was a colored doctor named Tate Williams, who everybody called Tate Billy, which always made me laugh, since I'd never heard of a nickname for a surname.
Anyway, Randall finally pushed on what looked like just another of the doors leading to the next stairway and there we were: his room, a big square box filled with books on shelves and stacked high on the floor. Beyond this a line of dormer windows looked out to the oaks, or walnuts. I could hear my sisters' muffled shouts below and went to see, but we were too high up and the windows were filthy, besides. Words were written in the grime. Copacetic, I still recall. Epistemological, belie.
"What are these?" I said.
"Words to learn," Randall said. He stood behind me.
"Oh," I said. This wasn't at all what I expected. It felt as if I had climbed a mountain only to reach a summit enshrouded in fog. Randall seemed oblivious; he began digging through his stacks of books. I watched him for a while, then spelled out HELP on the glass. I asked Randall what he was doing, and he told me to be patient. He was looking for the exact right passage, he said. He planned to teach me the art of "dramatic presentation."
Isn't it funny? I have no recollection of what he finally found. And though I can still hear him telling me they were smaller then, ask me what we recited in the hours before we were called to the table, legs up, in his window seat, our dusty view that of the old trees, their leaves a fuzzy new green of spring, of Easter, and I will say I have no idea. I know I must have read my lines with the teacher's sternness I have never been able to keep from my voice; he with his natural tenderness, as if he were presenting a gift to the very words he read by speaking them aloud. I know that sometimes our knees touched and that we pulled away from one another, or we did not. I wish I had a picture. We must have been beautiful with the weak light coming through those old dormers, our knees up and backs against either side of the window seat, an awkward W, books in our hands.
It became our habit to write letters. Randall wrote every first Sunday of the month. He would tell me what new book he was reading, what he'd marked to show me. I might describe a particular day, such as the time Daddy filled the backyard with water to make an ice skating pond, though we told Mother the pump had broken and it was all we could do to turn the thing off before the rain cellar flooded. Of course, once the sun wore down our imagined rink and we found ourselves blade-sunk and stranded in your grandmother's peony bed, Daddy had to tell her the truth.
She loved her peonies and fretted all that winter that we had somehow damaged the roots, that spring would come and the pinks she had ordered, the ones with the name that rhymed with Frank Sinatra, would have no company. But everything grew and blossomed on schedule, and we ended up calling the peony bed our lake and threatening to flood it every winter.
Randall sent me back a letter about a book he had recently read on the gardens of Kyoto, how the gardens were made of sand, gravel, and rock. No flowers, he said. No pinks. Once in a while they use moss, but even their moss isn't green like we know green. No grass green or leaf green but a kind of grayish, he wrote. You can't even walk in these gardens because they're more like paintings. You view them from a distance, he wrote, their fragments in relation.
The line I can still recall, though at the time I was baffled. I knew we were now at war with the Japanese; we were repeatedly given classroom instruction on the failings of the Japanese character. We had learned of crucifixions and tortures; we understood the Japanese to be evil -- not only did they speak a language no one could decipher, but they engaged in acts of moral deprivation our teachers deemed too shocking to repeat. I understood them to be a secret, somehow, a secret we shouldn't hear. Now, oddly, I knew something of their gardens.
The last time I saw him was the Easter of 1944. He was not yet seventeen -- can you imagine? the age of enlistment -- but would soon be, and he understood that it would be best if he went to war, that Sterling expected him to, that there were certain things that boys did without question. He never spoke of this to me; I learned it all later. Instead, his letters that winter were filled with some tremendous discovery he had made, a surprise he intended to share at Easter, not beforehand. You can imagine my guesses. Daddy had barely shut off the engine when I opened the door and sprung out. I might have bypassed all those narrow rooms and passageways altogether, scaled the tree and banged on one of those filthy windows, but I could feel Mother's eyes. She wanted me to slow down, to stay a part of them. In truth, the drive had been a sad one -- Rita newly married and stationed with Roger in California, Betty oddly silent. Our first visit seemed light-years past, an adventure far more pleasant than it had actually been, a family outing when we were still family. We had grown into something altogether different: guests at a party with little in common.
I stood, waiting for everyone to get out of the car, waiting until Mother opened the door and yelled, Hello. Then I ran to Randall's room. I knew the way, could find it blindfolded -- through the passageways and up the flights of stairs. I touched the countries in the Gallery of Maps, the danger spots, the capital cities. I picked up the mouthpiece and recited my Roosevelt impression -- "I hate war, Eleanor hates war, and our dog, Fala, hates war" -- just in case anyone was listening.
When I got to Randall's door I saw that it was ajar, so I went in without knocking. He stood facing the line of dormers, his back to me, his stance so entirely unfamiliar, so adult, that for an instant I thought I might have barged in to the wrong room, that for all this time a second, older Randall had lived just next door.
"Boo," I said. I was that kind of girl.
He turned, startled, and I saw he had been writing my name on the window grime.
He was so thin, rail-thin, we called it. A beanpole. Just legs and arms and wrists and neck. I imagine if he had been permitted to live his life, he might have married someone who would have worried about this, who would have cooked him certain foods and seen that his scarves were wrapped tight in winter. No matter. He crossed the room to me.
"Any guesses?" he said.
"None," I said, blushing. This was the age of movie star magazines, of starlets discovered at soda fountains. I had plenty of guesses, each sillier than the next, but I knew enough to keep them to myself.
He marched me out of his room to the cook's stairway, a long narrow corridor down to the foyer, then pushed on a second door I'd always assumed led to the pantry. It took us back to the Gallery of Maps, where he paused, as if expecting me to react. "So?" I said. He ignored me, taking my hand and leading me to the darkest continent in the Gallery -- an hourglass stain near the far end tucked behind the door to the musty unused parlor.
Randall swung the door shut and pointed to a few shredded cobwebs collected in the corner, where Antarctica would have been.
"Look," Randall said. And then I saw: a tiny black thread, horizontal, a hairline fracture dividing time remaining from time spent unlike the other cracks in the walls, the veinlike fissures that ran through that old house. "A clue," Randall said.
Sometimes, when I think about it, I see the two of us there, Randall and me, from a different perspective, as if I were Mother walking through the door to call us for supper, finding us alone, red-haired cousins, twins sketched quickly: bones, hair, shoes, buttons. Look at us, we seem to say. One will never grow old, never age. One will never plant tomatoes, drive automobiles, go to dances. One will never drink too much and sit alone, wishing, in the dark.
Randall knocked on the wall and I heard a strange hollowness. "Right here," he said. "Right beneath my nose."
He pushed and the wall flattened down from its base like a punching bag. He held it there and got down on all fours, then he crawled in. I followed, no doubt oblivious to the white bloomers Mother still insisted I wear with every Easter dress.
The wall snapped shut, throwing us into instant black. It was difficult to breathe, the sudden frenzied dark unbearable. And cold! As if the chill from all those other rooms had been absorbed by this tiny cave, the dirt floor damp beneath my hands, my knees.
"Randall?" I said.
"Here," he said. Then, again. "Here."
His voice seemed flung, untethered; it came from every direction and I began to feel the panic that comes over me in enclosed places. I would have cried had Randall not chosen that moment to strike a match. He was right there beside me, touchable, close. I sat as he held the match to a candle on the floor. It wasn't a cave at all, just a tiny room, its walls papered with yellowed newsprint, the words buried by numbers. Literally hundreds of numbers had been scrawled across the walls, the ceiling. Everywhere you looked. The strangest thing. Some written in pencil, others in what looked like orange crayon, smeared or faint, deep enough to tear the newsprint. There seemed to be no order, no system to them. Just numbers on top of numbers on top of numbers.
I could hear Randall breathing. "What do you think they were counting?" I said.
"Heartbeats," he said.
It was the slaves' hiding place, of course. I crawled to the far corner, my palm catching on something hard: a spool of thread. Red, I remember, its color intact. There were other things to look at. Randall had collected them, and now he showed me, piece by piece: a rusted needle, a strand of red thread still through its eye, knotted at the end; a leather button; a tin box containing cards with strange figures printed on them, an ancient tarot, perhaps; a yellow tooth, a handkerchief -- the initials RBP embroidered in blue thread on its hem -- a folded piece of paper. Randall unfolded it slowly, and I believed, for an instant, that the slaves' story would be written here. Another clue. But there was nothing to read, simply more numbers, a counting gone haywire.
Randall held the paper out to me and I took it, feeling, when I did, the brush of his soft fingers. "It must have been the only thing they knew," I said, staring at the numbered paper, my own fingers burning.
"Or had to learn," Randall said.
"Right," I said, not fully understanding.
"Look," he said. He held a comb, its wooden teeth spaced unevenly. "I bet they played it," he said.
"I bet they did," I said. Even then I knew I sounded stupid. I wanted to say something important, something that might match his discovery. But all I could think of was the dark, and the way the candlelight made us long shadows. I pulled my legs beneath me, still cold, and pretended to read the numbers. After a while, aware of his inattention, I looked up. He was bent over, holding the needle close to the candlelight, sewing, it appeared, the hem of his pant leg with a concentration I had only witnessed in his reading.
I leaned in to see. RB, he had embroidered, and now he stitched the straight tail of the P.
He startled. I'm not sure we had ever been that close to one another, eye-to-eye, my breath his breath. The candlelight made us look much older than we were, eternal, somehow: stand-ins for gods. "I thought I'd take him along," he said, by way of explanation.
We remained in the slaves' hiding place until supper, sitting knee-to-knee, trying to count the numbers. We gave up. Randall read some advertisement for Doctor something-or-other's cure-all, which worked on pigs and people, and we laughed, then he took the stub of a pencil he always kept knotted in his shoelaces and wrote three numbers across the advertisement -- 5, 23, 1927 -- the date and year of his birth. He stared at the numbers a minute, and then drew a dash after them, in the way you sometimes see in books after an author's name and birthdate, the dash like the scythe of the Grim Reaper.
"Don't," I said, licking my finger and reaching to erase the line. I may have smeared it a bit, I don't know. At this point Randall grabbed my wrist, surprising me with the strength in those fingers. It was the most wonderful of gestures. He brought my hand to his cheek and kissed my palm, no doubt filthy from crawling around on that floor. He seemed not to care. He kept his lips there for a very long time, and I, as terrified to pull away as I was to allow him to continue, held my breath, listening to my own heart beat stronger.
There was one other after that. Visit, I mean. The morning Randall came through Philadelphia on his way out. He was going to ride the Union Pacific, in those days a tunnel on wheels chock-full of soldiers stretching from one end of the country to the other -- some heading east to Europe, others heading west to the Pacific. Your grandmother would tell me stories of worse times, during the early days of the Depression, when she said that same train took children from families who could no longer feed them. She said she remembered a black-haired boy walking by their farmhouse, stopping with his parents for a drink of water. They were on their way to the train, the orphan train, they called it, sending the boy east, where someone from an agency would pick him up and find him a new place to live. She said it was a terrible thing to see, far worse than boys in bright uniforms heading out to save the world from disaster. She described children in trains, sitting high on their cardboard suitcases to get a view out the window, their eyes big as quarters, their pockets weighted down with nothing but the few treasures their parents had to give them -- first curls, nickels, a shark tooth, ribbons -- things they no doubt lost along the way. That, she'd say the few times I tried talking to her of Randall, is the worst thing of all. Children given up for good.
But I don't know. I remember the look of Randall stepping off the train. His big, drab coat, his leather shoes polished to a gleam shiny as those fingernails. It was a terrible sight, I can tell you. Mother and I had driven to meet him at the station. I believe it was the only time I ever saw him when I wasn't in an Easter dress. You would have laughed. I wore a pink wool skirt and a pink cashmere button-down, my initials embroidered on the heart. A gift from Rita. I was so proud of those clothes, and the lipstick, Mother's shade, that I'd dab with a perfumed handkerchief I kept in my coat pocket.
But the look of Randall stepping off the train. He had grown that year even taller, and we could see his thin, worried face above the pack of other soldiers. The morning was blustery, and it felt like there might be snow. Other girls were on the platform slapping their hands together, standing with brothers, boyfriends. We were a collection of women and boys. Mother stepped forward a bit and called out to him, and Randall turned and smiled and rushed over to us, his hand extended.
But that was for Mother. When I went to shake it, he pulled me into a hug. He wore the drab, regulation wool coat, as I have said, and a scarf, red, knotted at his neck, and I tasted that scarf and smelled the cold, and the lilac water, and the tobacco smoke all at once.
"Look at you," he said, and squeezed me tighter.
Mother knew of a diner nearby, and we went, though we had to stand some time waiting for a table, the room swamped with boys in uniform. I became aware of Randall watching me, though I pretended not to notice. I had come in to the age of boys finding me pretty, and I felt always as if I walked on a stage, lighted to an audience somewhere out in the dark. Mother chattered, clearly nervous in that big room with all those soldiers, waiters racing to and fro, splashing coffee on the black-and-white linoleum floor, wiping their foreheads with the dishrags that hung from their waists, writing checks, shouting orders to the cooks. Yet all the while I felt Randall's gaze, as if he needed to tell me something, and that all I had to do was turn to him to find the clue.
But there wasn't much time. Too soon that feeling of leaving descended upon the place. Soldiers scraped back their chairs, stood in line to pay their checks. Everyone had the same train to catch. Mother smoothed her skirt out and said she believed we should be heading back ourselves. Then she excused herself, saying she'd rather use the ladies' room there than at the train station.
Randall and I watched her weave her way around the other tables, some empty, others full. We were, quite suddenly, alone.
Have I told you he was handsome? I didn't know him well, but he had red hair, red as mine, and a kind, thin face. He might have had the most beautiful thin face I have ever seen. I should have told him that then, but I was too shy. This is what I've been thinking about: maybe he wasn't waiting to tell me anything, but waiting to hear something from me.
I may have taken another sip of coffee, then. I know I did anything not to have to look at him directly.
"On the train up I sat next to a guy from Louisville," he finally said. "His name was Hog Phelps."
"Hog?" I said.
"Said he wasn't the only Hog in his family, said he was from a long line of Hogs."
I looked at Randall and he shrugged. Then he laughed and I did, too. It seemed like such a funny thing to say.
I received only one letter from Randall after that. It was written the day before he sailed for the Far East, mailed from San Francisco. I remember that the stamp on the envelope was a common one from that time -- Teddy Roosevelt leading his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill -- and that Randall had drawn a bubble of speech coming from his mouth that said, "Carry on!" I opened the letter with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. I was too young and too stupid to understand what Randall was about to do. I imagined his thoughts had been solely of me, that the letter would be filled with love sonnets, that it would gush with the same romantic pablum I devoured from those movie star magazines. Instead, it described San Francisco -- the fog that rolled in early afternoons across the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and how the barking sea lions could be heard from so many streets, and the vistas that he discovered, as if painted solely for him, on the long solitary walks he took daily through the city. He wrote how he seemed to have lost interest in books, that he no longer had the patience. There was no time, he wrote, to sit. He wanted to walk, to never stop walking. If he could, he would walk all the way to Japan by way of China. Hell, he wrote (and I remember the look of that word, how Randall seemed to be trying out a different, fiercer Randall), when I'm finished with this I'm going to walk around the entire world.
I tried to picture him writing it, sitting at a large metal desk in the middle of a barracks, like something I might have seen in Life. I pictured him stooped over, with a reader's concentration, digging the pen into the regulation paper in the way he would have, if we were talking face-to-face, stressed a word. I saw him in civilian clothes, in the dress pants he wore every Easter. The same ones, as far as I could tell -- a light gray wool, each year hitched up a little higher and now, leg crossed across one knee, entirely ill-fitting, the RBP far above the ankle. He might have, from time to time, put the pen down and leaned back to think of a particular description, fingering those initials he had stitched in red. It was clear to me even then that he had worked on the letter like a boy who wants to be a writer. Certain words broke his true voice, were tried on, tested for fit. They were a hat too big for him -- the Randall I knew interrupted again and again by the Randall Randall might have become. The Hell, as I have mentioned. A line from some dead poet -- I would think of a thousand things, lovely and durable, and taste them slowly -- I had heard him recite in his room a hundred times, and other words I recognized as words still left to learn. It seemed he wanted to cram everything in.
Still, it is a beautiful letter. I have saved it for years. It finds its way into my hands at the oddest times, and when it does I always hold it for a while. Teddy shouts Carry on!, and I curse him. All of them. Then I pull out the paper, one creased sheath, and unfold it as slowly as I would a gift I'd never opened. My fear is that somehow in my absence, his words have come undone, been shaken loose, rearranged; the letters shuffled into indecipherable forms.
But there! My name in salutation, the sweetness of the attendant Dear. I'm again as I was, as he may have pictured me when -- writing at that desk beneath the window, the metal newly polished, the air fresh, eucalyptus-scented, the sea lions barking -- he signed Love, Randall, and underlined it with a flourish as elegant as a bow.
Copyright © 2001 by Kate Walbert