by Joe Smith
The gingerbread house sits out on the bluffs, alone, cocked slightly to the southeast so the parlor will catch the precious winter sun. The French doors that dominate this rather fussy room with its flowered wallpaper open onto a deck a few steps above a garden of prize roses. Framed by the small, even panes of the doors, the rose trellises and the boat resting on the horizon seem part of one of those Renaissance exercises in perspective concocted by Albrecht Duerer.
Walter, who appears in several of the photographs hanging in the parlor, hovers over the kitchen sink, drinking whiskey from a pickle jar and staring out a casement window at the dead parts cars in his side yard. Dodge Darts they are, each the recipient of a careful autopsy by Walter. He likes to know just what made a carcass a carcass before he bothers to have it hauled home.
"The kamikazes I can forgive," he says.
He raises the pickle jar to his lips, his pinky extended as if he were drinking out of a dainty teacup fetched from the glass display case angled into a corner of the parlor. The gold-rimmed teacups with their teeny handles depict shepherds piping to winsome shepherdesses in sylvan glades, a bucolic scene repeated on the saucers, as well as on bowls and plates of various dimensions. If Walter were a woman, the chinaware would've no doubt formed part of what his mother called a trousseau. Born in Yorkshire and widowed in America a few years after Walter's birth, she finally returned to England to end her days in a country where proper grammar prevailed. Left behind was her only son, her house, her roses, her chinaware, knick-knacks, and a bewildering zoo of bric-a-brac glass and ceramic animals unable to shake the dust from themselves.
"Dinner?" asks Walter, offering me a powdered doughnut from the box resting on the kitchen counter.
The only senior citizen I know who wears his baseball cap backwards, he's also one of the few who didn't rush to join the armed forces after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The summer before the sneak attack, Walter brought a young beauty home for afternoon tea. Adelita's long, dark braid reached almost to her ankles. A colorful, fringed shawl was draped around her shoulders, and in her hand was a basket of fruit, choice items from her family's fruit stand out on the highway. Walter's mother found the shawl garish, and the idea of her son courting a girl who trilled certain consonants and wore flowers in her hair, like a bullfighter's trull, was patently ridiculous. Besides, she didn't have blue eyes, the sure mark of good breeding.
Walter didn't dare contradict her, but he enlisted in the Navy just to spite her, so he was in uniform when the war started. He chose that branch of the service because he was an ace swimmer. He figured it might come in handy. He was right. What true maritime buffs might consider a cheesecake shot of an aircraft carrier adorns the wall above the mantel in the parlor. It's the "Lexington," the "Lady Lex," as Walter and her other admirers affectionately dubbed the nautical odalisque. He was aboard when Zeros manned by demented pilots slammed into her conning tower and torpedoes gashed holes in her hull. She erupted like a volcano, spouting flames and sailors, flicking fighter planes into the sea, sending them spinning in cartwheels along her ravaged deck. He was dog paddling in the warm Pacific waters when the old girl went down. She gurgled a choked farewell, then unfurled a last pall of smoke and ash. Like a billowing, black handkerchief, miles long, it floated in the sky for hours before settling down on the azure skin of the sea.
Walter carries the empty doughnut box over to the fireplace and tosses it in with the rest of the trash he'll burn some night when it's nippy. The rays of the westering sun flash off the glass of the French doors, which face the direction our crows would fly if they had a sudden hankering to see kangaroos and wallabies.
"I'd step outside and spit that way," says Walter, "if I were Superman and I could spit that far." He can forgive the suicidal Japanese pilots, brainwashed by Tojo's minions.
He can forget and forgive the submarine commanders, and even Adelita, who stopped answering his letters halfway through the great conflict and was married to someone else when he finally returned. He never really could fathom women or war, and probably wouldn't have made much of a husband. Adelita had no doubt guessed as much. He could forgive her. But the Aussies, never.
One picture in the parlor of the house the old bachelor's mother named the Rose Cottage is turned facedown. In some cultures, in which mirrors are reversed to discourage revenants from loitering about the premises, this would indicate that the person in the photograph is recently deceased. Here it merely signifies that Walter's youngest cousin is as good as dead, that he's married to a sheila. Employed by the Australian Broadcasting Company, the persnickety way she enunciates her employer's name is enough, in Walter's estimation, to strip the enamel off your teeth. She purses her mouth to pop out each word. Her squinty little eyes squint even more. She also insists on eating spaghetti with a spoon.
He knows these sheilas only too well. He met one who talked just like her in Sydney during the war, when the crew aboard the carrier that replaced the "Lady Lex" was granted a brief liberty. Most of the sailors headed for houses of ill fame. Walter, still under Adelita's spell, chose a pub-like sort of place and asked the vivacious waitress to bring him the fattest, juiciest beefsteak she could find.
"Right-o, mate," she winked, suggesting a pint of porter to wash it down properly. "And chips, no doubt? Yanks are mad for chips."
She actually brought him several pints during the meal, delivering them with coy smiles and flirty palaver. Walter was properly befuddled when the bill came. The amount stunned him, but he settled the account like a gentleman and staggered back to his ship. Only then, sobering up with coffee in the mess, did he find out just how much he'd been cheated. His fellow swabbies had paid less for a first-class meal and a tumble with a first-class dame than Walter had paid for a hunk of rare cow. Besides, the bill-padding barmaid should've given him more change back because the greenback American dollars Walter used were worth more than Australian dollars.
"Can you believe it?" growls Walter, licking powdered sugar from his fingertips. "I mean, they were supposed to flipping be on our side!"