Skip to main content

Roll Call

ISSUE:  Autumn 1993

People considered Uncle John a courtly dandy. He liked his seersuckers crisply fresh and in cooler weather never wore his suits without vests. During the coldest part of winter he was probably the last man in Richmond to fasten on dove gray spats. He doffed a Homburg until Easter when he replaced it with a black-banded Panama. The day the calender officially announced fall’s arrival he restored the Homburg. He owned a bamboo summer cane with a staghorn handle. The rest of the year he carried a Malachi, which had a circular silver head kept polished.

“What’s he ever done?” my Aunt Rose asked. She wasn’t Uncle John’s sister but my mother’s. Uncle John could claim no blood kin, being my grandmother Harriet’s second husband.

“The Rutledges were prominent,” my mother said. She was rounder than Aunt Rose, her brown hair held less captive.

“Whether the Rutledges were illustrious or not, he shouldn’t continually expect to be waited on,” Aunt Rose said.

We lived in the house that’d belonged to Grandmother Harriet, built by her first husband, a leaf exporter. It was located on Grove Avenue near Richmond’s Battle Abbey. As a boy I stared yearningly at glass-enclosed displays of spurs, knives, guns, and battle flags as well as the great mural of mounted General Robert E. Lee and his generals, whose names I could recite.

Grandmother Harriet had shocked my mother and Aunt Rose by slipping off one October morning and driving with Uncle John to Sea Island for a secret ceremony. She died of a stroke 11 months later. She’d been washing her white hair, and my mother found her hanging on to the sink, strands of the hair tangled around a flowing faucet.

Grandmother Harriet had changed her will to leave her stocks and bonds to Uncle John, though my mother received the house. Uncle John stayed on in the second-floor master bedroom. He appeared regularly at meals as if death had changed nothing. He was always gentlemanly, yet expected his laundry to continue to be washed and his room cleaned without making any financial contribution toward the house’s upkeep.

It was a difficult time for my mother. She lost not only her mother but soon also my father, a Navy pilot, his body never recovered from the Atlantic. She ordered a headstone erected in the family plot, but the grave remained empty.

My mother received his military insurance and a small pension, but the rambling frame house required lots of care. The cost of oil heat stayed high even when the third-floor rooms were closed. Mama and Aunt Rose needed a man around who could use a hammer, saw, and wrench, the type of person my father had been. Uncle John’s hands were long and slender, the nails well cared for and shiny as a snail shell rubbed with spit.

After each meal, he liked a cigar, the scent of which lingered around the house and further upset Aunt Rose.

“You never get it out,” she complained. “It’s in the rugs, the furniture, the walls.”

Aunt Rose hadn’t married. She taught school and helped with the house chores. She washed and ironed the parlor curtains. She placed part of her salary each month in the ornate Spode tureen on the dining-room sideboard. That fund was used for food and other expenses.

“If he won’t contribute anything, he could at least come to the table on time,” she complained.

Uncle John slept till eight-thirty each morning, bathed, and liked to be served a three-minute egg. He also expected the newspaper to be on the table, though he didn’t pay for the subscription. Mother bustled in from the kitchen to wait on him. She struggled to control her exasperation.

“If he would just hurry,” she whispered to Aunt Rose.

“You ought to confront him,” Aunt Rose said, her lips drawn tight and thin.

“Mother loved him dearly,” my mother said. “We have to remember that.”

When silver-haired Uncle John finished breakfast, he lit his Corona, looked over the Times-Dispatch, and rose to make ready for his stroll downtown.

“Where is his office?” Aunt Rose asked. “You’d think he’d have to be there by ten o’clock.”

“In the financial district,” my mother said. “Something to do with securities. I’ve heard him talking investments over the phone.”

“A phone for which he also pays nothing!” Aunt Rose said. Her resentment firmed and made her so brittle she might have shattered had she bumped a table or chair. “What’s he done with Mama’s money? She would’ve wanted him to spend it on her house!”

Despite his age, Uncle John hadn’t married till he courted Grandmother Harriet but lived with his aging mother, Alice Chadwell Rutledge, whom Aunt Rose called the last grande dame of that peculiar clan, caring for her through her long lingering sickly years.

Uncle John was always nice to me, not playing ball or rough-housing like my father, whom I’d known till I was 14, but treating me in a much more adult fashion. He helped me write a paper for school on the Battle of Saylers Creek, a bloody last-ditch fight during what Grandmother Harriet had called the “War of Northern Aggression.” I used the expression “rapacious blue bellies” in describing the overwhelming force of Yankee soldiers.

Uncle John was sitting in our den before the fire, the evening newspaper, which he also didn’t pay for, spread across his lap. He wore what people used to call a smoking jacket. It was gray and had dark piping around the lapels and pockets.

“I don’t think ‘rapacious’ is the word you want,” he said. “There are always good and brave men on either side of any war, and when they die, they too leave wives and children who mourn them. Courage is the same in every breast.”

“Were you a soldier?” I asked.

“I suffered from a heart condition,” he said. “A flutter. But in my youth I attempted to enlist first in the army, then the navy. My family had a military tradition. My greatgrandfather was a bugle boy who sounded his battalion’s charge when mighty Stonewall’s foot calvary broke and routed Hooker’s right at Chancellorsville. My grandfather a colonel riding beside Teddy Roosevelt up San Juan Hill. My father a captain of artillery with the AEF in France, and were it not for my heart I’d have been a West Point cadet.”

For my birthday he gave me the bugle that had belonged to his great-grandfather Joseph Valentine Rutledge. He led me to the basement to open his steamer trunk stored behind the furnace. The bugle was wrapped in a gray flannel bag that had a faded yellow drawstring.

“Can you blow it?” I asked, thrilled holding the instrument across my palms. Though it seemed too small and compact to signal battle commands and had a dented bell, I thought it a wonderful gift. I prized even the dent, which Uncle John couldn’t explain, but I liked to believe had been caused by a minnie ball during ferocious bloody fighting that won the victory for Stonewall and General Lee.

“Once I could,” he said. “My lip’s gone. You’ll have to practice.”

I did in our garage. I learned the military calls—assembly, mess, tattoo, taps, and of course the charge. Aunt Rose made a face about the bugle, and my mother who’d been teaching me felt disappointed I didn’t give more time to the piano. I kept the bugle close till I realized, as Aunt Rose said, the instrument was limited. Still it prepared me to take up the trumpet at TJ High. By then I had a lip. I fitted the bugle back in the flannel bag and set it among my shirts in the bottom drawer of my dresser.

The tax drove Aunt Rose to confront Uncle John about helping with expenses. A city reassessment pushed that bill up six-hundred dollars annually. She clenched the bill the very moment Uncle John walked in the door at five Friday afternoon from downtown. He’d picked up the News-Leader.

“I’d like a word with you in private,” she said, her face pale and hard as enamel. Behind her glasses, her green eyes appeared enlarged.

“Certainly, Rose,” he answered as he hung his Homburg on the oak hall rack and stuck his cane in the brass umbrella stand.

They walked to the den where she slid the mahogany doors shut. I listened with my right ear against the scrolled wood, but the doors were thick and heavy, and I could catch only snatches, mostly from Aunt Rose whose voice became shrill.

“We’re just two women trying to hold things together!” she said. “And we need help!”

“I apologize,” Uncle John said. “. . . forgive. . . had no idea I was causing such distress. . .can be sure the situation will be rectified. . .change my ways Mama caught me listening and pulled me by the arm. “What are you doing?” she asked, and her voice caused Aunt Rose to open the doors. She still clutched the reassessment bill, and she walked past without a word and up the front steps.

Uncle John stood at the center of the room. He appeared more confused than disturbed. He patted his hair and lifted the newspaper from the table.

“Simply a misunderstanding I quickly intend to correct,” he said to my mother.

“I didn’t want this to happen,” she said, her face flushed.

“Consider it forgotten,” Uncle John said and gave her the slow tender smile that melted her everytime.

I snuck into his room Saturday morning while my mother and Aunt Rose grocery shopped. Uncle John had left the house, telling us he was going downtown to check his office mail.

Glancing around guiltily, I quietly slid open drawers of his chiffonnier and found not only his spats but also two hairy pelts wrapped in tissue paper. Wigs! He wore wigs!

I looked in his closet where fewer clothes hung than I’d expected, though all were stylish and well cared for, his trousers held upsidedown by clips to the cuffs. A single pair of polished black shoes had been set precisely together on the floor.

Back on the shelf under a battered Knox hat box I discovered a brown leather attache’ case which had a brass latch. Carefully I opened it, smothering the snap sound by cupping my fingers over it. I again looked behind me before uncovering rows of glittering cuff links, the pairs placed in silky white slots—pearl, gold, of various fancy designs, two having coats of arms, some set with what looked like precious stones. Though he always used links in his French cuffs, I didn’t remember ever seeing any of these showy ones. A collection, I thought, or perhaps heirlooms of those Aunt Rose called the illustrious Rutledges.

Quickly I closed the box, replaced it on the shelf, and was lucky to get out of his room, for Uncle was just entering the house. I eyed his hair to see if I could spot the wig. Maybe a seam along the rear of his neck.

That evening before dinner, Aunt Rose walked to the sideboard to deposit her weekly payment. She lifted the Spode tureen’s lid, started to stick in her hand, and drew back. “What’s this?” she asked. As she turned to my mother, she held up a sheaf of money bound by a rubber band. Puzzled, Mama shook her head and looked at Uncle John.

“Least I could do,” he said and smiled.

Aunt Rose was both pleased and embarrassed. She chattered nervously and offered to bring Uncle John a second slice of chocolate chess pie, which he accepted. She made no face when he lit his cigar.

Weekly thereafter Uncle John left what Aunt Rose called his “donation” in the Spode tureen.

“He’s really at heart an extremely generous man,” Aunt Rose said.

The next time I sneaked into his room I’d stayed home from school on a blowing January weekday because of a sore throat. Aunt Rose was at work, Uncle John had gone downtown to his office, and my mother had driven to the drugstore to fill a prescription. I again wanted to see those cuff links.

When I opened the attache case, several pairs were missing. He could be using them, I thought, yet that evening as he settled into his chair to read the paper, he wore those I’d often seen him choose, silver ovals, his initials engraved in English script and nearly worn away.

“Are Uncle John’s cuff links he wears valuable?” I asked Aunt Rose. She was finishing up at the kitchen sink.

“Antiques maybe but hardly priceless,” she said. “Why?”

“Just wondering,” I said. “Do you think he wears a wig?”

“Entirely his affair,” she said, which meant she did know, and gave me a look. It was hard to stay ahead of Aunt Rose.

Each Monday during the winter he continued to lay money in the Spode tureen. As a result, living became easier around the house despite wind that caused trees to fracture across power lines and cold seemingly endless rains that flooded the James. For his birthday my mother baked Uncle John an angel food cake, and Aunt Rose bought him a pair of Italian leather gloves.

Evenings Uncle John did receive lots of calls, sliding closed the den’s mahogany doors to do his talking. I answered the phone on a drizzling afternoon when he was still downtown.

“If you’ll leave your name and number,” I said to the man who’d asked for him. Mama had taught me to do that.

“Just tell him Vic,” the man said.

“And the number?” I asked.

“He knows,” Vic said and hung up.

The afternoon of a warming March day I sneaked into his room a third time. He was still at work, and downstairs Mama and Aunt Rose planted tulip bulbs in our window boxes. I unlatched the attache case. More empty slots. I searched the top of his chiffonnier and in other drawers. More than half the pairs were definitely missing.

On Friday morning during Easter break, I followed Uncle John when he left the house. I wanted to know where his office was and exactly what he did. I waited down the block on the other side of Grove Avenue.

At a few minutes after ten he passed, in no hurry, tipping his Panama hat to ladies, his cane’s ferule striking the sidewalk every third step. He wore no overcoat this sunny day, though he did have on the gloves Aunt Rose had given him. He was a handsome man still, tall, erect, and he made me feel that not even a hurricane or tornado could cause him to quicken his pace.

He continued along Grove to Lombardy to Park. He paused to watch pigeons gathering to peck corn scratch somebody had thrown on the grass. He circled Monroe Park and entered Grace and Holy Trinity. I peeked through the church door into the vaulted blueness created by stained-glass windows. There was no service. He simply sat, his Panama off, his gloved hands resting on his cane, and stared toward the chancel and the glimmering silver chalice on the glowing altar.

He almost spotted me as he left. I knelt to the prayer bench and bowed my head into my hands.

Uncle John continued through Monroe Park and then along Belvedere to the river where construction crews were repairing the Lee Bridge. He stood leaning on his cane and studying the work as a crane swung steel buckets of concrete into an excavation. The river’s current, still high from spring rains, swirled and hissed along the bank and against piers. Trucks backed into the excavation to unload clattering I-beams. A bucking jackhammer’s dust fogged the sunshine.

He reset his hat and walked back along Belvedere to Cary.

He stopped before a shabby brick antique store and looked into the grimy window. He must’ve known somebody inside because he raised a hand. He stood a moment, a gloved palm turned upward. He let the hand down slowly.

He moved on up toward Main. I followed and glanced at the store. I saw no one back in the dimness. The window displayed empty wooden frames, a dusty cavalry scabbard, and a curling painting showing hunters jumping wild-eyed horses over a stone fence as they chased hounds across a straw-colored field.

He next walked Franklin Street to the lawn of the State capitol. The sun, the church bells, the goodness of the day had brought people from office buildings. They gazed at the limitless yellow sky with wonder that winter had retreated before a perfumed spring.

He sat on a green bench along the maple-shaded pathway. He raised his hat to young matrons pushing baby carriages. He brought out a cigar and smoked it, recrossed his legs, and watched an irate mocking bird dive at a squirrel.

He lowered his head. Why, I thought, he’s having himself a snooze. He roused to look at his pocket watch. At last, I thought, he’s going to his office. He did walk again to Main and into Forrest, Hill & Dunne, a brokerage house, where he stood watching the tape.

He entered executive offices at the rear of the noisy trading room. An elderly dignified man rose from his desk to greet Uncle John. They sat talking. I pretended to read a research report on hospital stocks. When I glanced back, I saw the man shake his head.

I scooted out and waited at the far end of the building’s marble corridor. Uncle John paused before the water cooler. He didn’t drink but seemed undecided which way to move next. It was almost eleven-thirty. He had to be headed to work.

He walked from Main Street up to Franklin and the Richmond Public Library. He climbed the stone steps, removed his hat, and entered.

As I lingered, I hid myself behind a cream-colored square column and display board on the library’s porch. Colorful book jackets flapped in a variable breeze. When Uncle John didn’t come out, I sidled inside and peeped around the amber reading room. I spotted him sitting at a table near a sunny window. He’d laid his hat, gloves, and cane across a chair. He held a book.

I pretended to read magazines, first Time and then in Southern Living an article about the planting and care of orchids, seeing the same line over and over, “The soil must be carefully prepared and nurtured.” I kept my face covered and sneaked looks around the glossy pages.

At twelve-forty by the wall clock, Uncle John pushed from his chair to go to the Men’s Room. I hurried to the book he’d left open. My eyes snatched up the line, “”Let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees. ‘” Mighty Stonewall’s last words. A librarian watched. I moved on among stacks.

Uncle John returned, sat, and again took up the book till one-thirty. He stretched and reached for his cane, gloves, and hat. He carried his book to the lady at the circulation desk, where they had a friendly whispered conversation.

He crossed Franklin St. to a sidewalk vendor who sold sandwiches and sodas from an umbrella-covered pushcart. Uncle John leaned his cane against a power pole to eat a hot dog. He held a paper napkin under it and maneuvered not to spill any mess on his clothes. He drank a Coke. He made the simple lunch seem leisurely elegant dining.

He glanced my way but didn’t see me behind a Chevy parked alongside Linden Row. He wiped his mouth carefully before dropping the napkin into the plastic trash bag hanging from the vendor’s cart. He spoke to the chef-hatted black man, who laughed and nodded.

Uncle John returned to the library where he picked up the book the lady had kept for him and sat in the same place. This time I pretended to read Business Week. On the cover large black letters printed against a red background asked, RECOVERY IN SIGHT?

Uncle John stayed seated till three-forty-five. If he’d been reading, the print must’ve been fine or footnotes because he rarely turned a page. Mostly he’d looked out the window. After he returned his book to the shelf, he again spoke pleasantly to the lady at the circulation desk.

He walked out and strolled up Franklin and along Monument, passing Stuart, Lee, Davis, and Jackson. He turned down Shields Street to Grove. He paused, stooped to pick a wild violet growing from a crack along the curb, and pulled it into his lapel. At our house he lifted the paper from our porch and entered at exactly five o’clock.

As he sat in his chair reading before dinner, I joined him. The banjo clock on the mantel over the fireplace chimed. He smelled of cigars.

“Uncle John, what kind of business do you have downtown?” I asked. His wig was slightly off center, and I easily made out the seam.

“Oh, a manipulation of money,” he said, lowering his paper. “All business comes to that one way or another. Nothing very complicated or noble about the endeavor.”

“I thought you might be a banker,” I lied.

“Never anything so grand,” he said. “I did study law a year—just long enough to learn I wasn’t cut out for a career before the bar.”

I waited for more, but he lifted the paper and continued to read. I worried that if I kept pestering him he’d become suspicious. That night at the dinner he admired the daffodils my mother had cut in her garden and arranged in a blue glass vase at the center of the table. He still wore the purple violet.

“The whole world seems to be blooming,” he said.

“After such a cruel winter we deserve it,” Aunt Rose said. She’d become very soft toward him.

But I wondered what he was doing with the cuff links. I figured he must be selling them to a friend or maybe an antique dealer or even a pawn shop, though I couldn’t see Uncle John ever walking to gritty, besmirched Broad Street for that. He was too particular about his English-made shoes.

When Uncle John didn’t come home Friday evening after Memorial Day, I looked up and down Grove before bringing the paper in from the porch. Mama and Aunt Rose held dinner and worked themselves into a fret. They pestered Information for Uncle John’s office phone number. They didn’t know none existed.

At seven-twenty a police car stopped at the curb. The young officer doffed his cap and wiped the sweat band as he talked to my mother, who raised fingers to her face. Uncle John had fallen through a barrier at the bridge excavation. The hospital needed instructions where to send the body.

He was buried beside Grandmother Harriet. None of the few remaining Rutledge cousins objected, despite their also owning a family plot. Mama cried and so did Aunt Rose, yet not as much. The fact they’d have to pay for the body’s preparation, casket, limousine, and graveside service upset her. She never spoke those feelings outright, but she brittled up and rattled plates from the cupboard as if she meant to break them.

Uncle John had a will naming Mama and Aunt Rose as legatees, but left no property or money to distribute, not even a checking account. It was Aunt Rose’s idea to see a lawyer, Mr. Gaines at the firm of Polk, Hood & Sydney. He believed the case valid, contending the contractor had been negligent in not protecting the public against risk.

The construction company attorney argued the excavation had been fenced with wire barriers, but somebody had removed a section. The insurance people settled out of court. Aunt Rose wept the day the check came from Mr. Gaines.

“I do miss him so,” she said and sniffled as she eyed his place at the dinner table.

They’d puzzled when going through his things about the empty attach^ case and wondered what they should do with his wigs and spats. The last pair of cuff links, the everyday silver ones, had been buried with him.

I kept thinking it had to be. He knew Aunt Rose would go to a lawyer. I’d turned 17. On Uncle John’s birthday when she and Mama were remembering him more than usual, I finished eating dinner and left the house. I had a driver’s licence. I drove the Buick over to Carytown where the high-school crowd hung out. I got carded at Buck’s Stops and paid a senior nicknamed Geek to buy me a sixpack.

I drank three beers fast. I might’ve made out with Lucy Whitmore, a blond TJ cheerleader, but didn’t try. Back at the house, I hid the undrunk beer behind garden implements stacked in the garage.

I called goodnight to Mama and Aunt Rose, who were watching Billy Graham on TV. I hurried up the steps before they could look me over. I lay on my bed, which started spinning everytime I closed my eyes, and had this crazy idea. I stood, steadied myself on my dresser, and opened a drawer to feel around under my clean shirts. I tiptoed down the steps and went out the back.

Drinking a warm beer, I drove to Riverwood Cemetery. The grilled iron gate was locked. I climbed the wall and ran shining my flashlight on glaring tombstones and along black twisting paths that swallowed the beam.

I tripped over a tree root and righted myself on a looming stone angel. A night breeze disturbed drooping willows and carried the sweet scent of honeysuckle as well as the sharp good odor of tobacco curing in warehouses across the river. I stumbled at Uncle John’s grave, the soil not leveled yet like Grandmother Harriet’s or my father’s empty one.

I lifted the bugle. The mouthpiece tasted sour. My lip was loose because of beer and not keeping up trumpet practice. Swaying, I tried twice before I got Taps halfway right. Still it sounded awful puny in the vast, cavernous world of night.

The guard ran hollering out of darkness. He shone his flashlight close to my face.

“What you doing, boy?” he asked, a hefty black wearing a uniform, cap, and badge. He carried a wood billy and sniffed at me.

“Honoring two soldiers,” I said and drew myself straight.

“Might be, but you hauling out of this place quick as your feet’ll roll you,” he said.

He gripped my arm and walked me to the gate. He unlocked it using a glinting key unhooked from his belt.

“How they die?” the guard asked, releasing me, his voice quieter, more concerned. He opened the Buick’s door.

“Heavy concentrations of enemy fire,” I said as I slid inside the car. I started the engine and switched on the headlights, which pushed out through blackness to patterned gray stones of the wall. I still gripped the bugle.

“You come daytime between eight and eight,” the guard said, shutting the door.

I backed the Buick to turn, steering one- handed, and peered along the road. I glimpsed the dark sheen of the river.

“And take care now, hear?” the guard called after me.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading