It was a time of love. Tamara let the white silky summer dress slide down her upraised arms and down over her head. When it brushed past her nipples she smiled and thought of her husband’s gentle hands and how they sent electricity between her thighs. The dress settled over her bottom and she thought of how tightly they grasped each other when their love became ferocious.
She turned to her husband who stood before the full-length mirror. Wesley held himself erect with pride in his Marine Corps Blue Dress uniform. She came up softly behind him. It was a time to embrace. She wrapped her arms around him under his arms and felt slowly down his hard chest and stomach. They smiled to each other in the mirror.
Wesley adjusted his white peaked cap and spoke to Tamara in the mirror, “You look wonderful. Are you ready for this?”
“Only if you hold me.”
It was a time to laugh, “I think I need you to hold me, dear. When the President says my name all those TV cameras will be on me.”
“Don’t be nervous. You look so handsome.”
“Oh, you’re right, of course. It will only be like a firing squad!”
Wesley turned in Tamara’s embrace and hugged her and kissed her. She disengaged herself slowly and whispered, “It must be nearly time to go.”
He asked, “Where is our Little Devil?”
“He’s in his room. Can’t you hear him rolling his baseball into everything?”
Wesley smiled and thought of the day he gave to their son that first baseball. Their little boy had stood in the backyard joyfully flexing his bowed little legs and clapping his pudgy little hands and beaming at his father.
“Here it comes, Little Devil. Catch it.”
“Honey,” Tamara had fretted, “he’s too little for Catch.”
Wesley had lobbed the baseball toward his son and the little boy had burst into a squeal. Their Little Devil had bent down wobbly and captured the slowly rolling baseball with both hands.
“Atta’ boy!” crowed Wesley.
It had been a time to laugh. “It’s big as a basketball to him,” Tamara had said, failing to remain stern.
Tamara now smiled at Wesley’s reverie. She said gently, “He’s a star pitcher just like you, dear. The limousine is here. I’ll get him. Meet me at the car.”
Wesley thought of his own childhood near the lake, gathering stones together and casting them away at the surprised ducks so far out there. He became the star pitcher in high school. Tamara was trying-out for cheerleader but she had also tried-out for the love of his life. It was a time to dance. They couldn’t keep their hands off of each other. They were married after high school and Wesley enlisted in the Marines and their Little Devil blessed them soon thereafter.
Now they found themselves sitting in their designated seats at the National Mall for the 4th of July celebration and the Capitol Fourth televised concert. Tamara leaned against Wesley and wrapped her arms around his right arm. Little Devil sat on daddy’s lap rocking back and forth dazzled by the flashing colors and the musical sounds but Wesley held him securely with his left arm.
The President was now speaking. It was a time of war. Wesley was drawn unwillingly into memories of his recent tour of duty, the days of combat, the last assignment.
It had been a time of hate. Those hostages were going to die. It was a merciless fire fight. Wesley was not fearless. He was firing through walls into rooms that Intel had said held only combatants. The hostages were in the basement he had been told.
He slid around the corner to confirm as “clear” the room he had just pumped full of fire and brimstone. There in the corner were two young children on a bed, cowering in each other’s arms, clutching each other. Wesley felt his legs almost give. How had he not killed them? He forgot the mission. He strode to their side whipping his semi-automatic rifle around the room.
The children were crying hysterically. Wesley reached toward them. They screamed and cowered against the wall shaking their heads.
“It’s OK, kids. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m a friend. I’m going to get you out of here.”
The children whimpered and shuddered. The dust on their faces was streaked with muddy tears. Wesley shouldered his rifle and reached for them and took hold of the boy’s and the girl’s shoulders. The children screamed.
“We got no time, kids! I’m sorry.” And Wesley yanked the boy and girl together up from the bed.
The homemade booby-trap exploded imperfectly. It was a time to die. The boy and the girl were rendered into bloody debris. Wesley was thrown back across the room where his team found him.
The adult hostages had been rescued. The kidnappers were dead. It was a time to mourn the poor dead children. Wesley cried into the shoulders of his men. And then it was a time to keep silence.
Wesley now heard the President speak his name and he felt the heat of all the camera lights upon him. He saw himself in the big screen monitor behind the President’s podium. Tamara reached for Little Devil and whispered behind her arm, “Stand up, dear.”
Wesley lifted his son who hung on his arm and passed him to Tamara. Wesley stood erect. He could have been carved from the finest wood. He raised his right arm to salute the President.
Where his hand had been was now a white bandaged stump. He could still feel his hand as if it were only numb and he held the stump just that distance from touching his white peaked cap.
He sat back down when the lights turned away. He reached with the white bandaged stumps of both his hands for his son. Little Devil grasped and hung upon those arms back to his father’s lap squirming with delight. Tamara wrapped her arms back around Wesley’s left arm and hugged.
It was a time to speak, “I am so proud of you.”
THE COUNSEL OF FEARS
I’m just sitting here. I’m shaking with every sound. I can’t move my legs. I’m pressing back into this boulder crevice. Bullets are ripping leaves and branches, spattering into the mud like hail, throwing mud all over me, mocking me, “Imagine how this will feel!”
Pinchofsky is over there on his back. He has stopped moving. He cried out for his mother. He doesn’t look like Pinchofsky anymore. Even when he would pass out drunk in Saigon he didn’t look like that. Pinchofsky was always twinkle-eyed, always had a girl, and I never did, but he was my friend, and not just because we were the same faith, … are the same faith.
My mother is probably at our pet shop back home, right now. I like all the happy noises. Mother always says that I’m a “sensitive boy”. She told them that I should not be drafted. They didn’t care if I was “sensitive” and they sneered at me. She told my father that “mean boys” would wait for me outside the pet shop and beat me up, and that I wouldn’t fight back. My father said that the Army would be good for me. It was fucking hell until Pinchofsky came along. I loved him and now he’s dead.
The shooting has stopped! What now? I can’t stop shaking. They’ll hear me. They’ll blow my guts out like they did to Pinchofsky! I hear something. Charlie is coming slowly around this boulder to my left. He’s tip-toeing right past me. He’s a shrimp. He’s peering down at Pinchofsky. I raise my rifle. He whirls around in my direction.
It’s a girl! She glares at me defiantly but she starts to shake. She throws her gun away. She’s a pretty girl. Like one that Pinchofsky would have had back at the Recreation Center. I can blow her face off. Why aren’t I?
I know why.
My shaking stops and I stand erect, listening for others. She must have been left behind for a fighting retreat. She’s too frightened not to be alone. That means we did it, Pinchofsky. We held them off. I glance at Pinchofsky. The voice in my head calls out to him, “But, I’ll never be able to find you again.”
I say in a harsh croak to the girl, “You. Speak English?” I point to my lips.
She shakes her head. She says something.
I say, “That’s Gook to me,” viciously, and then I laugh and it turns into crying. Fuck. Pinchofsky.
I reach behind to my pack and such movement startles the girl. She nods her head saying something; pleading, I guess. It might be a trick so I say “Shut the fuck up!”
I throw my shovel at her feet and point to her and then I point to Pinchofsky.
“You dig?” I joke bitterly. Pinchofsky would have laughed.
She is fast and she is strong. I can’t help admiring her. But all the time she’s digging she’s chanting or singing or something. I keep telling her to shut the fuck up, so I can keep listening. She keeps glancing at me and at my rifle. Oh, I don’t trust her.
She stops and points to herself and says, “Hai”. Then again, “Hai”. I get it: her name is Hai. She holds up her hand, palm toward me.
I hiss, “Yeah, hi, Hai. Keep digging, bitch!” Don’t use her name! Keep her sub-human. She is jabbering again, making gyrating motions with her arms over her head.
“Stop it!” and I point the rifle at her face. She juts her chin at me, trembling again. She finishes digging, but she is still softly humming. I let her, but I listen hard. I am exhausted by terror.
And now I am only dreaming on my feet that I am watching her.
I am startled awake by that realization and the smell of incense. She has lighted three incense sticks around Pinchofsky’s head. She is beside him on her knees, chanting in a whisper. And I am shaking. She could have killed me.
“Just kill her” I hear my father’s voice in my head. Then I imagine my mother saying, “He is not like that. He is a sensitive boy.” Suddenly I find my lips chanting, “…Shelter his soul in the shadow of Thy wings. Make known to him the path of life….” Hai sits back on her heels and chants louder, staring into my tear-filled eyes.
originally called Decoration Day,
is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service
“Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping”
by Nella L. Sweet
“To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”
Kneel where our loves are sleeping, Dear ones days gone by,
Here we bow in holy reverence, Our bosoms heave the heartfelt sigh.
They fell like brave men, true as steel, And pour’d their blood like rain,
We feel we owe them all we have, And can but weep and kneel again.
Kneel where our loves are sleeping, They lost but still were good and true,
Our fathers, brothers fell still fighting, We weep, ’tis all that we can do.
Here we find our noble dead, Their spirits soar’d to him above,
Rest they now about his throne, For God is mercy, God is love.
Then let us pray that we may live, As pure and good as they have been,
That dying we may ask of him, To open the gate and let us in.
Kneel where our loves are sleeping, They lost but still were good and true,
Our fathers, brothers fell still fighting, We weep, ’tis all that we can do.
It was the middle of the Great Depression. Roger stood outside the entrance to the Sunny Side of the Street bar. He was tall and lean and he was slouched like a question mark. He went inside.
Roger went up to the bar counter and sat down still slouched, looking at his face in the polished wood.
The bartender called over, saying, “Roger? What are you doing here? I thought…?”
Roger interrupted without looking up and said, “Gin, Jimmy.”
Jimmy came over and said quietly to the top of Roger’s head, “I thought…”
Roger said, “Gin.”
Jimmy said, “Hey, sure, Roger. Tell you what. I’ll give you one free and then you probably want to get on home. It’s Memorial Day, buddy, so you… after all you won’t be just drinking, OK? You worked so hard to quit…”
Roger looked up. His face had been severely burned, melted, and now resembled a clay mask molded by a blind man. His lips were too full and thick and his teeth protruded from under his upper lip like wax flippers. His bright blue eyes peered from as if behind the mask and he stared right at Jimmy and said, “Jimmy, I already had a mother. So they tell me. Gin, please, without a nag chaser, OK?”
Jimmy complied quickly, “Sure, Roger, sure. On the house. For Memorial Day,” and he slid to Roger a shot of Findlaters dry gin.
Jimmy made diverting conversation, asking, “How’s things at Roger’s Garage?”
Roger eased back the shot of gin and leaned forward again, saying, “I have the luck of the ‘early worm’, Jimmy. It’s a good thing that ‘happiness lies not in the mere possession of money’.”
Jimmy smiled wryly and nodded, saying, “Easy for Roosevelt to say, right?”
Roger slid the shot glass toward Jimmy but Jimmy did not reach for it.
Jimmy tried diversion again, asking, “Business must be ok, right? I mean, I put out the word to all my customers about your prices and your work. A good mechanic is better than a good whore anytime, right?” and Jimmy tried laughing.
Roger mused, “I flew in the Great War ‘to end all wars’, I’m raising a family in the Great Depression, Jimmy, and you’re a great customer and I don’t want to be ungrateful but pour me another goddam gin, will you?”
A customer was sitting one seat to the side of Roger and he had been glancing at Roger’s face and he was pretending badly not to listen. He said to Jimmy, “I’ll have two of what he just had, please.”
Jimmy said to the customer, “Comin’ up, Toby.” Grateful for the interruption Jimmy moved over to provide Toby with two shots of gin, pretending he did not know what was coming.
Toby slid one of his shots of gin over to Roger and asked, “So you flew in the Great War? I’m buyin’.”
Roger clasped the shot and nodded to Toby and tried to wink at Jimmy but his eyelid only twitched and then he administered the proffered gin unto himself.
Jimmy said, “’Scuse me a second, guys,” and then Jimmy moved down the bar and made a phone call.
Toby asked Roger, “So, what was it like, if you don’t mind sayin’. Bein’ Memorial Day and all. Out of respect.”
Roger wiped his lips and said to Toby, “Out of respect, I’m going to tell you.”
Toby called past Roger over to Jimmy on the phone and said, “Three more of these, please.”
Roger took a breath and began, “I come from a family of mechanics. My big brother Peter was fascinated by the new invention: airplanes. He took it further. Peter became a pilot. I became his mechanic. In 1911 he joined the Glenn Curtiss exhibition team and worked under Lincoln J. Beachey.”
Toby said, “Hey. I heard of him. Wasn’t he called The Man Who Owns the Sky?”
Roger nodded and continued, saying, “When the Great War broke out Peter went to join the Lafayette Escadrille in Europe. I went with him as his mechanic. Peter scored his first kill in August of 1916 and he was an ace by 1917.”
Toby said in awe, “Your brother must have been somethin’ else back then.”
Roger drank another shot and raised the empty glass, saying, “He was.”
Jimmy had come back over after the phone call and was listening to the story.
Toby slid to Roger yet another of his shots of gin and Roger continued, saying, “The English slang for a chamber pot was a ‘Jerry’ and since the German helmets looked like chamber pots to the English they called the Germans ‘Jerry’. Anyway, one morning Jerry caught us with our pants down on the ground. A squadron of airplanes started strafing and bombing our field. When pilots ran to their planes they were gunned down.
Peter and I were hiding in the barracks doorway when he yelled ‘Let’s go!’ and he sprinted for his motorcycle. I followed him without thinking and jumped on behind him. He roared out zig-zagging to a plane in the next hangar, a bomber, a two seater called a de Havilland DH4. Peter jumped off the motorcycle and it fell over between my legs. Peter was already at the gunner’s rear seat and he released the safety on the machine gun. He hollered at me ‘Get in. It’s live!’ and I yelled ‘I don’t know how to work a machine gun’ and Peter said urgently ‘Just get the fuck in!’ and so I did. In a minute we were roaring out of the hangar and somehow we got in the air in the middle of all that strafing and bombing.”
Roger drank another shot. He continued, “Peter was screaming at me to hold the machine gun up at forty-five degrees and to fire when he told me. He then screamed ‘Strap in good. We’re going to be upside down.’ I thought he was just using slang. He wasn’t. Peter proceeded to fly like he used to in the exhibition events, figure eights, loops. Jerry couldn’t seem to catch us. Finally Peter pulled the plane straight up under a Jerry plane and looped right over him and he screamed at me ‘Fire! Fire!’ and I did. I was just holding the gun at forty-five degrees and pulling the trigger when told. Peter was aiming me while he was looping. Jerry must have thought the devil was flying that plane. I don’t know what damage we were doing but several Jerry lit out like whipped dogs. I whooped ‘We own the sky!’ just when a tracer bullet must have ignited the fuel tank.”
Roger tossed back a shot and his eyes glistened and he continued, “Fire broke out in Peter’s cockpit. Our airspeed was whipping the flames right on Peter. I heard him screaming. I turned around and I reached out to him instinctively, helplessly. Peter was still steering. He was driving the plane straight down. He could have jumped. He would have died anyway, but not like that. At the last minute Peter leveled the plane out enough so it didn’t crash straight into the ground. I screamed as I saw the figure of my big brother on fire like a torch and slumping over. Flames came into my cockpit. The plane hit hard, tearing off the landing gear and I remember being flung forward out of the cockpit. I don’t know…but I have an image of my brother waving at me. His arms must have been flung upward, but I have an image…”
Toby came out of his spell, saying, “Jesus.”
Jimmy handed Roger the shot of gin.
Roger drank the shot but this time he fell forward and he laid his scarred face on the bar counter and he wailed, immolated in his own memories and it was as if all the gin he had been drinking suddenly poured out of his sunken eyes.
Just then Roger’s wife Jenny entered The Sunny Side of the Street bar. Jimmy raised his hand at her and beckoned her. Roger still was slumped on the bar counter rolling his head back and forth in the tears. Behind Jenny following like ducks were their nine children, by age: Roger junior, Donald, Louise, Betty, Dorothy, Allen, Charlie, Carol, and Sonny.
The younger children looked at their father in alarm and began to wail, the older ones cried ‘Daddy’ and Jenny went straight to her husband and fell upon his shoulders and raised him up. Jenny was just tall enough to fit under Roger’s arm and she clutched his waist while Roger leaned on her sobbing. Jenny had raised her face and she was kissing and kissing his scarred mask of a face, saying, “Roger, Roger, oh, Roger.” The children all clung by one hand each to his shirt and pants.
As Jenny shuffled the family out she turned and said to Jimmy, “Thank you for calling me.”
Jimmy smiled wryly and said, “I knew he needed you.”
Jenny and Roger with their brood shuffled all of the way out of town, over the bridge, and back to their little rented home together.
It was a day I don’t forget.
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But, the most ancient scrolls are kept on: THE TABLE OF MALCONTENTS