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.
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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