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.
Copyright © 2001 by Kate Walbert
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