Let’s Keep the Home Fires Burning
When my father went to war, my mother and I went on vacation. She said it was our patriotic duty, to keep the home fires burning. I didn’t bother to point out that we weren’t even at home. Frankly I didn’t care. She took me out of school, told them she was taking me somewhere for my health. And with my history of asthma, coupled with my delicate almost wishy-washy appearance, why wouldn’t they believe her? Of course they did.
That was a different time. Now I think they’d want it all in writing, with the hand of one if not two physicians upon it. And a sample of phlegm for good measure.
So Father fought the German menace, while mother fought off the 4F suitors who clung to her like prickly balls. I couldn’t help but think that they must thrive on rejection. First the government, then my mother. I wasn’t sure which was worse, though none of them seemed much the worse for wear, and I would have been hard put to tell you what any of their disabilities were. Perhaps, like mine, they were more wishful thinking than reality.
We flitted about through the Southern states like we were on a royal tour, Mother and I. I was fifteen then, and puberty was just settling on me like a cement overcoat—thick and heavy and hard to get rid of. Who am I? Just call me Jack. I was all of fifteen with large blue eyes, which always seemed to be on the verge of tears, a crooked nose, thin lips and skin so pale I made Lugosi’s Dracula almost look tan by comparison. With a voice that broke in the middle of sentences. I quickly learned to stay silent, unless forced to speak. Luckily no one wanted to talk to me, it was Mother they yearned for.
The summer of ’44, we were in Panama City, Florida, staying at a hotel that sat right on the beach, facing the Gulf of Mexico. Usually she and I got adjoining rooms, but here we had no option but to separate—it was the tourist season, after all— so Mother was given the larger room, which opened onto the balcony in the front of the hotel, on the second floor, while I was in a small room of my own in the rear of the hotel, same floor, whose only view was of the back veranda.
I didn’t really mind, and I don’t think she did either. It made it easier for her to have visitors in her room and not come up with stories for me as to why they were there. It was embarrassing enough when she tried to palm them off as uncles. Whose benefit was that for? Not mine, I knew better. But I let her have her fantasies, and for the sake of harmony I said Uncle Bob, Tom, Dick, whichever name she introduced the man under, and just let it go.
After I saw the newcomer, I really didn’t care.
She arrived a day or two after we did. She had her own car. I noticed it first, ‘cause it was shiny and clean and the tires seemed in amazingly good condition, and I kept thinking how the people who ran the rubber drive would love to get their hands on those. She pulled it up in front of the hotel, and got out, pushing her sunglasses up onto her head as she did. The first thing that I noticed about her was her legs—they seemed to go on forever. She wore this white dress, nothing fancy, with little on beneath it. I could tell ‘cause it clung to her, like she’d sweated it onto her skin. I was sure that if I stared hard enough, I could see the outline of her nipples through the fabric.
She stood there for a moment, surveying her surroundings before she slammed the door, and waltzed into the hotel like visiting royalty. My mother was sitting in a deck chair at the time, I’d just handed her a glass of lemonade, as the goddess walked by. Neither one acknowledged the other.
“Think we should say hello?” I offered softly.
My mother sniffed. Loudly. I knew that meant no, so I discontinued any thoughts in that direction. I hated arguing, especially with my mother. It just wasn’t worth it. Especially when she had her nose out of joint. I debated going down to the beach, but I didn’t feel like wilting. And besides, my legs were spindly, a disfigurement I didn’t care to display in a bathing suit. I spent half an hour deciding what to do.
“Hey squirt!” I glanced up, as the sound of heavy feet tromping up the porch steps announced a new arrival. Uncle Louie. He reached for me, made like he was gonna ruffle my hair, but I managed to duck his best intentions. Shrugging, he turned toward my mother. “Hello princess,” he greeted her, bending and taking her hand, kissing it. She giggled at his attentions like she always did.
That was my cue to go. I told my mother I wanted to take a nap. She nodded and smiled, too focused on my ersatz uncle to notice, so I quickly snuck inside and took the stairs two at a time to the second floor, and my room. Instead of going to the bed, though, I found myself at the window, gazing down, into the back yard, and the porch, which no one ever used.
The new arrival had wasted no time in changing the sweat-soaked dress for a bathing costume, and was ensconced on one of the hotel’s lounges, soaking up sun. Her eyes were closed, so I felt safe in staring, watching the rise and fall of her lovely bosom with interest, imagining what they must feel like. Her breasts, that is.
With such thoughts, I dreamed the afternoon away.