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.
Copyright © 2001 by Kate Walbert
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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