Rona trudged home from the bus stop after another long day at the diner. It had been the usual crowd of morons and misfits, plus the handsy guy from Newark who kept grabbing her ass whenever she turned away; she kept turning away, though, afraid of what he might grab if she didn’t.
She walked to the front yard of her home and leaned against a tree. She wanted a smoke, but she had only one cigarette left, and she was saving it for just before she went to bed; she wanted one smoke and two minutes of peace to wrap up the typically dull, frantic, miserable day.
Rona pushed herself away from the tree and walked up the steps. She opened the door and closed and locked it behind her.
“I’m home, E.J.,” she called.
She listened for movement but heard nothing. She walked back toward the kitchen, which was dark
Rona snapped on the light
Her younger brother, E.J., sat at the kitchen table, a mummy’s worth of bandage wrapped around his left hand. Now that the light was on, he was staring morosely at the portion of table between his hands.
Off to one side of the table sat a can of food. It bore stab wounds from a sharp implement. A blood smear obscured part of the label so that it now read “EF STEW.”
“Had a little trouble with the can opener again, I see,” she said.
A soft, sullen “Yes” was her answer.
“I’ve told you that I’ll open a can for you before I go to work if you’ll just tell me what you want.”
“I never know what I’m going to want.”
Rona sighed and gave up on the old conversation. “Did you get something to eat?”
E.J. shook his head slightly.
“I think we can salvage this. Where’s the can opener?”
E.J. got up and shuffled over to the wastebasket. He bent and reached in to pull out his nemesis. He held it out for his sister, who took it without comment. She deftly opened the can and dumped the beef stew into a pot and turned the burner on high.
“I can eat it from the pot, Rona,” E.J. said quietly.
“No, I’ll put it in a bowl.”
Rona heated E.J.’s meal in silence. She turned off the burner and dumped the beef stew into a bowl. E.J. got his own spoon while Rona filled a glass of water for him.
“Thank you,” he said softly.
“You’re welcome.” She wanted to add a dozen things about learning to use a simple kitchen tool, but it would have been cruel.
“Maybe sometime I could eat at your diner,” he ventured.
“Now, E.J., I’ve told you that you wouldn’t like my diner. It’s loud and the food’s no good. I wouldn’t work there if I could find a better job, and I sure don’t want my brother eating that slop.” She rinsed out the cooking pot. “While you’re at the center tomorrow, be sure to have a doctor look at your hand.”
“I don’t need to,” he said through a mouthful of stew.
Rona turned and looked at him sharply. His head was carefully bent over his bowl so he couldn’t see her.
E.J. brought his head up slowly.
“You will have a doctor fix your hand tomorrow.”
“OK.” Tears welled in his eyes, but he kept eating.
She put the pot in the dish drainer and went into the living room. She eased herself onto the couch and sighed, grateful to sit. A few breaths later, she began to stretch out on the couch when she heard a crash in the kitchen.
Two minutes. Is two minutes of peace too much to ask?
She stood up again and went back to see the inevitable, hoisting the broom and dustpan from their hooks on the wall as she went by.
E.J. stood over the broken bowl.
Rona very much wanted to yell. She had a wonderful, nasty little speech at the tip of her tongue: “Christ Almighty, E.J.! Don’t you have any idea of how hard I work and the crap I have to put up with just to keep a roof over our heads? It’s hard enough to take care of myself in this world, but I have to take care of you, too. Can’t you get a damned bowl from the table to the sink?”
She said none of this, though; it evaporated, as it always did, as she looked into her brother’s eyes. They were filled with a bottomless dread. He had accidentally broken the bowl, and one thing E.J. knew down to his bones was that accidents were punished with excessive cruelty.
He saw someone with a large rod come toward him. He was going to be beaten again. He stifled most of a whimper.
“It’s OK, E.J.,” Rona said quietly. “I’m just going to sweep this up.”
Daring greatly, he looked up. It was Rona, and she had a broom. It still looked like a weapon.
“I’m just going to sweep this up,” she repeated. “Why don’t you go sit down in your chair in the living room? I’ll be in in a little bit.”
E.J. remembered where he was. He exhaled a small puff of relief and shuffled toward the doorway.
He stopped. “I was trying to help, Rona. I’m sorry.”
“I know, E.J.”
He stood there another moment. “I thought you were going to beat me with the broomstick.”
She looked up from the floor. “That was a long time ago, E.J. That doesn’t happen here.”
“I’m glad,” he said, but he didn’t sound sure. He shuffled on toward the living room.
Rona sighed. Even now, six years after the war’s end, E.J. never talked about it. But she’d read enough in the newspapers to know that he had suffered worse than any sinner in any preacher’s description of hell.
And Ethan Junior — the most capable young man she had ever known, the little brother who used to fix her bicycle, who could turn his hand to any task — was now unable to open a can of beef stew and lived in mortal fear of broomsticks. That was the legacy of fourteen months in a Japanese prison camp.
And that was why he could never visit her at the diner. She was certain he wouldn’t react well to her boss, Mr. Watanabe.
Rona dumped the shards of the bowl into the wastebasket. To hell with the cigarette; it would be treat enough if E.J. could sleep through the night rather than wake up screaming from a nightmare it seemed he would never escape.
Two minutes of peace … for either of us. Is that so much to ask in this life?
She went to sit with E.J. in the living room, unaware that she was shuffling down the hallway much as he had.