Before the Dawn

Chapter 1
Before the Dawn

1955

Scratch

Scratch had an itch. He wiggled his bat one last time, tensed, took a half-step forward, cocked his wrists … and relaxed as the little white bullet fizzed past the outside corner snapping the catcher’s mitt back with a thwack and raising a wispy smoke ring of desert dust.

“Ball.”

He stepped out of the batter’s box. A glance at the umpire confirmed the count was three and one. Bottom of the ninth, one run down, Mickey danced off third, Jimmy Ray slouched on second, two outs. Overfamiliar phrases paraded through Scratch’s mind, just meet it, little bingo, find the gap, hit it where they ain’t … “Christ this is boring,” he whispered under his breath.

Tapping the grit out of his cleats he tried to pull himself back into baseball, but in his mind’s eye all he could see was that guy, some old Greek guy, who had to roll some stupid rock up some stupid hill forever. Same thing over and over and over again, a never ending cycle of the same old shit.

  A waft of chatter fluttered out from the home team bench, “Come on Scratch baby!” “Little bingo.” “Eye on the ball.” “Pitcher’s got a rag arm.”

The infielders caught the babble swirling off the visitor’s bench and spun into a vortex of, “No hitter in there.” “Noooo batter.” “Swings like my grannie.” “No swinger.” “Looking for a walk.” “Nobatternobatternobatter.” The outfielders, lips in constant motion, were too far away to add to the racket. A frigid gust sliced straight through him.

Scratch took off his batting helmet, wiped the sweat out of his eyes with the back of his forearm and rocked his head back and forth to loosen his neck. He set his helmet back on his head and slapped it down with the flat of his hand. Scanning left to right he checked the defense before settling his gaze on the primordial giant standing on the mound. With great long arms, great long legs and an overhanging forehead the pitcher looked like he’d just crashed out of the Canadian forest. Leaning forward to get the catcher’s sign his head nearly reached halfway to home plate. His chin sagged nearly halfway to the ground.  His arms hung loosely at his sides. The knuckles of his pitching hand nearly brushed the ground. Bigfoot’s dimwit cousin, thought Scratch.

Wiping his hand along the bat Scratch stepped back into the batter’s box, re-dug the hole for his right foot, tapped the far top corner of home plate, wiped his nose with the back of his wrist, windmilled his bat a couple of times while his fingers tapped a short tattoo on his haunch. He settled with a couple of practice swings. Wheels turned inside Scratch’s head, nothing but fastballs so far, Sasquatch needs a strike. Nothing fancy. Probably doesn’t know how to throw a curve. Can’t even tuck his shirt in properly. Slob. Fastball. It’ll be a fastball.

With a dull nod at the catcher’s signal the pitcher eased into his wind-up. Jimmy Ray strolled off second. Mickey waved his arms and pretended to break towards home. Watching the left arm come over and the release Scratch ticked off the action, trajectory and spin. Everything was right. He planted his left foot and swung.

The connection was wrong. Scratch was well into his follow-through before the ball reached the plate. Instead of a sharp crack of the bat he got a muffled tick. The ball looped high into the air, but short. The visiting bench rose as one fists pumping and hats flying while the home bench sunk into silence. Scratch knew he was out before he’d dropped his bat. Still, he sprinted to first as he was taught. It’s never over until the fat umpire sings. The second baseman chased back. The center fielder called him off and gloved it for the final out. Scratch peeled away from the base path, stopped, put his hands on his hips and silently spat out several oaths he’d never repeat in front of Mom, or Dad for that matter.

A shadow fell across him. Scratch looked up, “Sorry, Coach.”

“It happens, Kid,” said Coach Chambers. “Who’d have thought that great lump could change speeds?

Outwitted by a half-wit, thought Scratch.

Turning towards the bench Coach Chambers clapped his hands and shouted, “C’mon. Let’s get this gear stowed,” to Scratch’s teammates who were already hard at it in order to get away from another loss as quickly as possible. Behind him Scratch could hear the visitors joking, laughing and replaying the highlights in back-slapping delight.

He turned towards home plate to collect his bat. Picking it up he turned and scuffed his feet on his way back to the bench clipping the head of some weedy flower with his bat handle on the way. Plopping on the bench he swapped cleats for sneakers. After tying his sneakers Scratch looked up, pulled the visor of his cap down to shade his eyes and scanned the shimmering dancing desert horizon. Nothing. No way out. Nowhere to go.

Wrapping his cleats around his neck he headed for the bike rack. As he pulled his bike out and threaded his glove onto the handle bar Mickey popped up alongside, “Whatcha doin’ tonight, Scratch? Wanna come over?”

“Can’t,” said Scratch. “I’ve got some stuff to do at home.”

“What stuff?” asked Mickey.

“Just stuff,” said Scratch.

“What stuff? Book stuff?” said Mickey. “You’re always disappearing doin’ book stuff these days.”

“What’s wrong with book stuff? I like reading.”

 “Reading’s for girls.”

“What do you know about girls?”

“I know they like to read,” said Mickey, counting on his fingers, “pass notes in school and can’t hit a curve ball.”

“There’s more to life than baseball you know.”

“Well if there is I ain’t interested.”

“One day you might find something even more satisfying than hitting a curve ball.”

“Yeah, grinned Mickey. “You mean like hitting a change up?”

“Ah shaddup.” 

With his bat still on his shoulder Scratch pushed off, cycling one handed and wheel wiggling slow. Mickey stuck close by supplying an uninvited and long winded exposition on how he’d got the better of the nitwit that had outwitted Scratch. Turning off his ears Scratch turned over the stuff he’d been turning over for months. The movie Mom made him watch a couple of nights ago sprung out of nowhere. Mom’s movies were always serious and always had some kind message that Scratch never really got. This one was called Death of a Salesman, or something like that. Most of it went straight over his head, but there was a part near the beginning when one of the guy’s sons was yelling about not knowing what future is, not knowing what it was he was supposed to want. Scratch got that, right between the eyes.

What do you want to be? The question hit him like a baseball bat to the forehead. He’d been struggling with it since the start of the school year when guidance counselors started grading and herding him and his classmates. Girls were shepherded into homemaking, or secretarial studies. For some reason that seemed to rile Mom something awful. Dumb guys like Mickey were driven off into Wood Shop or Metal Shop. Smart guys got ready for college, that riled Mom too. Scratch found himself stuck in the middle, too smart for shop but having neither the grades or the desire for college. What do you want to be? He was only fifteen. How the hell should he know? Have you asked your parents? He asked dad. 

“Relax,” said Dad. “Something will turn up.”

“But the school’s saying I gotta choose now.”

“No you don’t. Make your mind up in your own time.”

“When did you know you wanted to be a pilot?”

“The first day I sat in a plane. We took off, just about straight up. My stomach was on the ground. My heart was in my throat. I was so scared I’d have jumped right out that damn thing if I hadn’t been buckled in, but then … oh … must have been about a thousand feet up, we leveled off and for a instant we were weightless, just hanging in the sky with the world below and I was free, at last I was free. That’s when I knew I had to fly.”

Dad patted Scratch on the shoulder. “Take it easy. Try things. Something will crop up.”

If Mom’s movie was anything to go by being a salesman was a dumb idea. The guy was dumped after thirty-six years of working for the same company, worth more dead than alive. Still, the movie was just a movie. Then, that very morning, buried inside Dad’s newspaper the headline: Death of a Salesman. Gordon Emlow DeVille, some medical bigwig with General MacArthur in Japan. He helped saved a lot of lives after the war, but when he came home he just disappeared. Three years later DeVille turns up a penniless pencil salesman dangling at the end of a rope in a flop behind a barber shop he’d been given out of charity. All DeVille left behind was a desperate note and a request that his body be used for science. They found some relatives. The relatives took the body back to Ohio and buried it there. He didn’t even get his last wish.

A loud pop and the disheartening hiss of a deflating tire disrupted Scratch’s thoughts.

Mickey circled back and came to a halt directly behind him, “You’ve got a flat.”

“Thanks, Sherlock,” said Scratch. Instinctively he reached into his hip pocket for the nickel he always carried in case he needed to phone home. There wasn’t a pay phone in sight and he was pretty sure there weren’t any along the route.

“Can you still ride it?” asked Mickey.

“No, might wreck the rim,” said Scratch. “I’ll have to wheel it from here. No sense in both of us being late. Why don’t you go on ahead. Tell my folks what happened. Tell ‘em I’ll be a late for dinner.”

“I ain’t in no rush. I’ll walk along with ya.”

Please don’t, thought Scratch knowing that hope was as forlorn as a hope could get. 

The road was late Saturday afternoon quiet. No chance of a friendly pickup truck pulling up so they could sling their bikes in the back and breeze home. Scratch and Mickey walked side by side in the road. Mickey continued to yammer on and on. Scratch, head down, continued to ignore whatever he could. His ears picked up the drone of a C-124, Old Shakies dad called them, executing touch and goes on a training runway in the distance. From the sound of the engine Scratch could see it take off, circle back, descend until its wheels just touched the runway and power off again. Around and around and around. Going nowhere. The thought of something made Scratch smile.

“What’s so funny?” asked Mickey.

“It’s Family Saturday Night tonight,” said Scratch, “a good night to be late.”

“Why’s that?” asked Mickey.

“Mom’ll be cooking something that’s supposed to be good for us like broccoli, or cauliflower, or cabbage or spinach, or something like that” said Scratch. “We had kale once.”

 “I thought your mom was a good cook.”

“Not even close. She’s a good dancer and does a heap of things for charity or the poor or somebody and she’s always off doing teaching or coaching for girls and women, trying to get them to stand up for themselves stuff like that. Dad says she must be a direct descendant of Susan B. Anthony.”

“Who’s that?”

“Dunno, some woman I guess.”

“It’s always good when I eat over to your house.”

I’ve seen you eat centipedes on a dare, thought Scratch. “She does all right with one or two things. It’s when she starts to experiment you have to watch out and she doesn’t have an affinity with vegetables, except maybe potatoes.”

“A what?”

“A — ffinity,” said Scratch. “A knack to you.”

“Well why don’t you just say that?”

“I just did,” said Scratch with an emphasis he was certain Mickey would miss. 

“What’s your dad say about her experimentin’?” asked Mickey.

“He says everything she does is perfect. Always asks for second helpings.”

“Even when you think it’s awful?”

“Yep. He told me once that a good fighter pilot has to know how to live on the edge and eating Mom’s cooking was as near to the edge as any man needs to get. He made sure Mom wasn’t listening when he said it and swore me to secrecy so don’t you go saying anything.”

“Come over to my house. We’re having hotdogs and beans,” said Mickey

“I can’t skip out on Family Saturday Night. Besides we had hotdogs and beans last night.”

“We have hotdogs and beans most every night,” said Mickey.

They walked along in silence for a while.

“Wanna cigarette?”

“No thanks,” said Scratch.

“Why not? Nobody’s looking.”

“Because my parents don’t smoke and they can smell it a mile off. I caught hell the last time.”

“Smokin’ ain’t bad. Wouldn’t be on television if it was bad for you.”

“All the same, no thanks.”

“Why your folks so down on it? My dad lets me smoke in the house.”

Scratch was pretty sure Mickey was lying and certain it would be futile to point that out.

“It’s mostly my mom. Grandpa smoked —”

“Which one?”

“— Mom’s dad, he —”

“You said he was a coal miner.”

If you ask a question, fumed Scratch silently, at least let me answer it. “He was, but —”

“— and died from breathing coal dust or something.”

Scratch paused. He knew the reprimand was far too subtle to register with Mickey, but it was either that or whack him on the head with his bat. On reflection, thought Scratch, maybe whacking him on the head with a bat wasn’t such a bad idea.

“I’ve seen your dad smoke,” injected Mickey.

“Yeah, he sneaks one every once in a while. Sometimes when he comes home late after a couple of beers he winks at me, puts his finger to his lips and whispers, don’t tell your mother before he runs into the bathroom, washes his hands and brushes his teeth. It doesn’t work though. Mom just says, you’ve brushed your teeth. You’ve been smoking again haven’t you.”

“My dad wouldn’t tolerate that. If my mom said anything he’d just say, shaddup Maude and get me another beer,” said Mickey.

“I thought your mother’s name was Laura,” said Scratch

“It is.”

“Who’s Maude?”

“That’s what dad calls mom when he’s irritated — or drunk — or irritated and drunk.”

“She takes that?” said Scratch.

“I guess. She just rolls her eyes and says, well, that’s your father and —”

“— gets him another beer,” they chorused.

“Why, what would your mom do?” asked Mickey.

“Hard to say. One thing’s for certain. She wouldn’t be fetching no beer.”

“So she sits around the house and makes your father get his own beer?”

“No, like I say, she’s always busy doing stuff, teaching dancing at the high school down in Lancaster, going to meetings, giving talks — ”

“What kind of talks?”

Scratch let a little exasperation creep into his voice. “How should I know. I don’t go. It’s all women.”

“So who does the housework around your place?”

“We all do.”

“Even your dad?”

“Sure, why not?”

“But he’s a pilot.”

“He still needs clean socks.”

“That’s women’s work!”

“Not in our house. It’s everybody’s work.”

“You guys are weird.”

“Different maybe, but there’s no law against being different. Not yet anyways. Though Mom says there soon will be if McCarthy gets his way.”

“Who’s McCarthy?”

Scratch had run out of energy, “Nobody, Mickey. Nobody important.”

“So what you doing tonight,” asked Mickey, “ironing socks?”

“Nah, we don’t iron socks.”

“What do you do?”

“Talk mostly.”

“What about?”

“All kinds of stuff. What’s in the news. What’s going on around the base. Stuff I learn at school.”

“Sounds boring.”

“It’s good fun. Dad likes to tease Mom. He never takes anything seriously and she takes almost everything seriously. He knows how to get her really riled up.”

“Do they fight?”

“They argue, sort of. Mom argues. Dad cracks jokes. Sometimes when Dad goes too far Mom jumps on him, grabs him by the shoulders and shakes him hard, saying he’s the most frustrating man she’s ever met.”

“Does your dad hit your mom?”

“No, he just laughs and then they usually sneak off to their room leaving me to lock up.”

“What do they do then?” asked Mickey.

“Have a guess,” said Scratch.

“They got a television in the bedroom?”

Scratch shook his head slowly, “Mickey, you’re going to make a great baseball player.”

“Frankie Frisch, that’s me,” said Mickey. “Slick in the field, slippery on the base paths and sneaky at the plate.”

Mickey fell silent. At last, thought Scratch.

Mickey stared at the ground. Sounding a little lost he said, “Sometimes my dad hits my mom.”

Scratch couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. He cast a sidelong glance towards Mickey. Eyes down and dragging his feet his friend looked all alone on a lonesome road. Scratch couldn’t bring himself to say anything. They finished the journey in silence save for the distant drone of the Old Shakey going round and round and round.

Reaching Scratch’s house Mickey said, “See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, maybe,” said Scratch.

Shaking off his doldrums Mickey taunted, “If you’re not too busy reading,” before hopping on his bike and racing off with a two handed wave. He almost lost his balance and very nearly crashed into a parked car. Recovering quickly he stood up and pedaled hard, swaying his bike left and right with each thrust. Once he’d gained all the speed he could he sat back down threw out a ‘no hands no feet’ and yelled out the old secret call they used to use as kids. It sounded hollow.

 Scratch wheeled his bike into the garage. Stood it against the wall, set his bat in the corner by the kitchen door and headed inside. Once inside he stopped. Something wasn’t right. No pots bubbled angrily on the stove. The kitchen did not reek of vegetables boiled beyond recognition. The radio wasn’t on. Now that he thought about it he’d walked straight into the garage. He turned back to confirm the car wasn’t there. For a moment Scratch’s hopes elevated. Perhaps healthy eating had been over-ruled tonight. Perhaps Dad’s latest fixation had won and he’d gone out to the new shopping mall on the base. There was a place there, he’d said, where you could buy pizza, bring it home and eat it. Perhaps tonight there would be no broccoli, no cauliflower, no cabbage, and, best of all, no spinach. 

Scratch bounced through the kitchen and into the living room. Mom and Rosie were on the couch hunched over a puzzle on the coffee table. Mom looked up. She looked kind of dazed.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” said Scratch. “I got a flat.”

“I need to speak to you in the kitchen,” said Mom. Rosie looked up from her puzzle and grinned the way she always did when Scratch was in trouble. Mom rose and without looking at him walked straight into the kitchen.

Scratch looked inquiringly at his sister, shrugged his shoulders and mouthed, What?

“Now!” came the command from the kitchen.

Scratch shook his head and sheepishly shuffled into the kitchen. Mom had her back to him. She stood very straight, arms folded, staring out the kitchen window.

“Sorry, Mom. I got a flat. I had to walk —”

She turned slowly, leaned against the kitchen counter and grabbed the edge as if for support. “It’s your father. His plane crashed today … He didn’t make it.”

“You mean he’s —” faltered Scratch grabbing the back of a chair as his legs gave a little.

“— not coming home … Rosie doesn’t know yet. I wanted to tell you first.”

Scratch didn’t know whether to sit down or remain standing. Dad always said this might, and probably would, happen. They’d spoken about it several times on their fishing trips. Despite all the talk, all the preparation, Scratch felt … unprepared. He couldn’t think of a single thing to do or say. He could only manage a pleading stare at Mom.

“Let’s go tell your sister,” she said.

Scratch followed Mom into the living room ashamed of his inability to react.

Rosie looked up from her puzzle, “Is Scratch in trouble?”

“No, Scratch isn’t in trouble.” Mom sat down and put her arm around his sister. Scratch sat on the end of the couch angling himself towards the two of them.

“Daddy’s had an accident,” she said stroking Rosie’s hair.

“What kind of accident?” asked Rosie without looking up from the puzzle.

“His plane crashed. He … isn’t coming home.”

Rosie turned a blue puzzle piece slowly in her hand. She tried find a place in the upper right hand corner where there was a lot of sky. It didn’t fit anywhere.

“Not ever?” she asked.

“I’m afraid not.”

“Doesn’t he like us any more?” asked Rosie, still looking for a place for her puzzle piece.

“Of course he does,” said Mom, giving Rosie a squeeze. “He’ll always love us.”

Rosie set the piece down, turned towards Mom and folded her arms, “Then why isn’t he coming back?”

“He can’t, darling. He died.”

Rosie’s face puckered as if in thought, “You mean like when Herbie the hamster died and we had to bury him in the backyard?”

“A little bit like that, yes.”

Rosie was again silent in the light embrace of Mom’s arm. Scratch interlaced his fingers and slowly spun his thumbs. He tried to think of something intelligent to say. His mind was blank. His eyes drifted up to the model of an F-86 Sabre, the plane Dad had flown in Korea. They’d built it together shortly after Dad returned home. It had been sitting on the sideboard for the better part of two years waiting for the final decals.

“Are we going to bury Daddy in the backyard?” asked Rosie.

“No, darling, people are buried in cemeteries when they die.”

Rosie took a minute then asked, “Who’s going to fix my bicycle?”

“I’ll do that,” said Scratch, grateful to have something, anything, to say.

Rosie nestled into Mom’s side and played with her fingers. The three of them sat in silence. Apparently having come to a decision Rosie sat upright and turned towards Mom, “Can I go read, Mom?”

“Of course you can.”

Rosie leapt off the couch and ran to her room.

“That was a little strange,” said Scratch.

“She’s barely seven. Children can react in very different ways.  … How are you?”

“Stunned I guess but then … I suppose I shouldn’t be. Dad always said something like this could, and probably would, happen.”

Mom leaned back on the sofa and slowly rubbed her belly.

Scratch thought about reaching out to Mom but felt awkward about it. He knew he should do something but didn’t know how to start. He’d seen this scene played out in the movies dozens of times, but it always looked so corny. He and his friends never failed to parody the mushy dialogue, punctuating every tearful-eyed phrase with a cackle all the way home.

“How are you?” he asked.

Mom shrugged her shoulders, “Stunned too. I don’t know what to do with myself right now.”

“Me neither.”

Neither spoke. They sat in silence save for the soft ticking of the clock on the sideboard and the slow drip from the kitchen faucet that Dad had been promising to fix for months.

“How about something to eat? Soup and a sandwich?” said Mom.

“I’ll make it,” said Scratch easing himself off the couch.

“Let’s do it together. I need to be busy right now.”

There was a sort of a race to the kitchen. Scratch got there first, crouched down to fish out a pan from the jumble in the cabinet under the counter and, eventually, set it on the stove to warm. He squeezed past Mom to get the can opener out of the drawer. It wasn’t where it was supposed to be. 

Rummaging through the drawer Scratch asked, “Have you seen the can opener?”

“Is it not in the drawer?” said Mom.

“No.” Scratch tried the silverware drawer, the odds and ends drawer, the drawer for dish cloths and towels. He bent down and looked in the cabinet under the sink. “I can’t find it.”

He straightened up and turned to see Mom opening a can of soup with it.

Dad in the kitchen was easy. Scratch took charge of the stove and cooking. Dad took care of laying the table, getting things out of the refrigerator, fiddling with the radio and cracking jokes. With Mom at the stove Scratch wondered what he should do next. He looked at the silverware drawer. If he took out the silverware Dad would be dead, like the salesman in the movie, like the guy in the newspaper. Scratch’s hand froze an inch away from the drawer handle. If he opened the drawer he would be killing Dad.

“Could you get some knives and spoons out and set the table please?” said Mom, “and see if you can’t pry your sister away from her book.”

Torn between killing Dad and taking on the job he hated more than any in the world, pulling Rosie away from her books, Scratch selected the latter and knocked on Rosie’s door. “Dinner’s ready, Rosie.”

“Not hungry,” crept out from under the door.

Standard opening, standard response. Normally this is where the irritation would only just be starting but tonight of all nights Rosie remained Rosie. Scratch found that strangely comforting. Opening the door a crack he eyed Rosie sitting in her little chair in the reading corner of her room with a book in her lap. Her finger slowly traced along the words as she silently mouthed each one.

“Mom says,” whispered Scratch.

Rosie nodded without looking up.

All told dinner, from conception to consummation, took twenty minutes. Rosie returned to reading. Scratch and Mom cleared up, another five minutes. Scratch wiped the counter he’d already wiped twice.

“Game of cribbage?” asked Mom.

“Sure.” Scratch headed into the living room to get the cards and cribbage board.

“Drink of something?” followed him into the living room.

He knelt down and slid open the panel, “I’m all right,” he called into the games cupboard. 

Finding everything, Scratch returned to the kitchen. Mom was making herself a cup of instant.

He sat down and begun to shuffle the cards. “We’ll be all right won’t we?” he asked.

“We?”

“You, me and Rosie.”

“Aren’t you forgetting someone?” Mom picked up her mug, turned and looked down at her belly.

Scratch’s eyes followed her’s. Shit, thought Scratch, catching his head in both hands. Barely two weeks before Mom and Dad had burst into the living room, right at the end of I Love Lucy, to announce the joyful news that a new baby brother or sister would be joining them sometime around late October, early November. Everybody jumped and whooped and hoorayed. Dad made popcorn and the whole family celebrated on the couch with Red Skelton. Rosie sat in Dad’s lap and Scratch, resting in Mom’s arms, was careful not to crowd the baby. She laughed a rare laugh and playfully slapped his head while explaining his new brother or sister was hardly the size of a pea and quite flexible.

“We’ll have to see,” said Mom.

Mom sat down and they cut for deal. She won and dealt the cards. “Anything on the radio?” 

That’s weird, thought Scratch. Mom never listened to the radio. Mom read books, usually four at the same time. Dad listened to the radio. He liked swing, big bands and comedy, mostly comedy. He loved Groucho. 

“Don’t know, maybe Fibber McGhee. Might be a little early. Maybe Guy Lombardo —”

“No schmaltz tonight, thanks.”

“Jack Benny?”

Mom pulled a face. “Whose crib is it?”

“Yours,” said Scratch as he chucked two cards towards her.

Mom fanned her cards, heaved a weary sigh, pulled one card proud of her hand, then another. She knocked the first card back. Scratch watched her jaw tighten as she tapped the tops of her cards with her fingers. She pulled the first card proud again and then flicked the two she’d selected into the crib muttering, “I don’t know.”

“Four,” said Scratch.

“For what?”

“We’re counting.”

“Oh, sorry … um thirteen.”

“Sixteen.”

“Twenty-two.”

“Twenty-three.”

“Twenty-five.”

“Twenty-seven for two.”

“Thirty.”

“Last card,” said Scratch.

“Huh?”

“You threw the last card. You get a point.”

“Lucky me.”

The conversation throughout the first game never strayed from counting and scoring. Mom won by three.

Scratch shuffled the cards, “We’ll be all right won’t we … us four?” he asked.

Tilting her empty coffee cup towards her and staring into bottom as if searching for an answer she said, “I expect so … somehow.” Still staring into the empty cup she laughed and said, “You’d think I’d be used to this by now. I’ve lived through this night dozens of times.”

“What do you mean?” asked Scratch.

“During the wars, both of them, there’d be reports of planes being shot down near to where your father was stationed. Quite often it took days, sometimes weeks, before a letter or something would come through with a date on it to prove he was still alive. I kept myself busy so I wouldn’t have the time or energy to worry about whether or not he was coming home. That’s what I do. I keep busy.”

What do I do?, wondered Scratch. What do you want to be? Mr. Ferguson, the Guidance Counsellor intruded into his thoughts, You must prepare for the future, son. Well, Mr Wise Guy Guidance Counsellor, how do you prepare for this? You fat jerk. Scratch couldn’t suppress a silent spasm of laughter. 

“What’s so funny?” asked Mom.

“Sorry, nothing.”

“Go on. I could use a little humor.”

“I was just thinking about Mr. Ferguson at the beginning of school last year when he kept bugging me about planning for the future. What do you want to be? What do you want to be? He kept asking and asking, shoving some stupid form with a bunch of boxes in my face. You were at a conference in San Diego. I asked Dad what should I do.”

“What did he say?”

“He said I should tell Mr. Ferguson to go sit on a pencil …” Scratch shrugged his shoulders, “So I did.”

“That was funny?”

“You and Dad got hauled into the principal’s office about it.”

“Oh yes, I remember,” said Mom with a chuckle. “That … was very funny.”

They played another game. Mom won again.

“Another?” she asked.

“You won,” said Scratch.

“Two out of three?”

“You’ve already won two.”

“Must be my night,” said Mom, drumming her fingers on the table. She appeared lost in thought. Finally, shaking her head as if throwing off sleep, she asked, “Would you like a glass of wine?”

“Wine?”

“Just one. We’ve both had a very trying day.”

“Um, well … sure I guess.”

“Why don’t you see if you can improve on Guy Lombardo. I’ll get the wine.”

Scratch walked into the living room and over to the radio. He turned it on and waited for it to warm up.

Mom came in with two glasses of red and set them on coasters on the coffee table. Once the radio glowed into life Scratch twisted the dial until he found the slow growl of a trumpet. “This okay?” he asked.

“Your father and I often sat up with a glass of wine after you and Rosie went to bed.” She picked up her glass and turned towards Scratch, “Cheers.”

Not knowing what else to do Scratch picked up his glass, “Cheers.” Mom clinked his with hers, closed her eyes and took a long slow sip. She sat back on the couch with the glass in her lap, eyes still closed and said nothing. Scratch stuck his nose over the edge of the glass and sniffed. It smelt kind of sour to him but there seemed to be nothing else to do but drink. He took a sip … and grimaced. “You like this?” he asked.

“Blame your father. He chose this one,” she said without opening her eyes.

Saxophones swirled out from the radio, followed by the irresistible slow sway of Billie Holiday swinging God Bless the Child. Scratch closed his eyes and fell into the cradle of the soft brush work on the drums. Billie’s voice wrapped him in a warm blanket. His foot swung to the rhythm while his thumbs tapped the offbeat on the base of his glass. As the song drew to a close Scratch opened his eyes. He looked over at Mom. She was still, her hands holding her glass in her lap. A single tear, half way down her cheek, refracted light from the kitchen making it shimmer like a morning star. It was only then that Scratch realized he too was crying.