by Karen Harrington
This story has never before been published. Trigger warning for a mention of suicide.
It was late and the gates were long since closed. The place was strewn with red and green decorations and smelled of fresh-cut pine. The participants were assembling for the party now, most wearing the uniform of their branch of service. Lots of chin rubbing and gentle nodding and subtle saluting, as if to say, this, this is nice. A nice touch. The cool weather. The almost full moon. There had been music earlier and it hung in the air like a found memory.
Dalton was in his trademark khakis and button-down shirt. Comfortable clothes, that’s what he preferred, and besides, he’d outgrown his uniform long ago. A simple ball cap with ARMY stitched to the top was all he now required. He mingled about, wringing his hands for something to do. Dalton and emotion had never been friends. He preferred just a hint of feeling, a thin veil of an unused expression.
His favorite T-shirts would have helped right now, he thought. They announced his opinions so he wouldn’t have to. A whole collection of them that his wife ironed and hung in the closet by color. But no, he had the tan button-down shirt, which wasn’t much of a conversation starter. Dalton blended into the scene like milk disappearing into coffee.
A plane flew overhead, cutting the air with a roar. A jetliner. Dalton loved the sound of aircraft. It distracted him so much he almost collided with a dark-haired airman in dress blues, whose name tag read Brazos. He squinted down at the younger man, who was a whole head shorter than he, and frowned the frown of an old man who doesn’t like surprises. “Are you supposed to be here?”
Brazos, whose tanned perfect skin and unwrinkled face, pressed his hands against his blue uniform, smoothing the eternally smooth. “Well, I…”
“You’re a little young to be here is what I mean,” Dalton said, looking over Brazos’ buzz cut as if someone were playing a trick on him.
Brazos seemed bewildered. He scanned the scene of elder revelers and quickly took in Dalton’s meaning. This club definitely bent toward boomers. And maybe the parents of boomers, too.
“I guess so, sir,” Brazos replied.
“How old then?”
Dalton grimaced. “Nineteen. damn, son, what happened?” Brazos looked confused again, as if he’d just been deposited there among the holiday décor and couldn’t remember how he’d arrived. And then Dalton continued, “Oh, to be nineteen again. I was just eighteen when I enlisted. That was 1953, right out of high school, son. Glorious years. You’re still in your glorious years. Probably got a glorious girl to think about.”
Brazos rubbed his palms against his uniform once more. His name tag was ultra-shiny, hardly used. “I don’t think so, sir. With due respect, my high school years sucked. And no girlfriend. She dumped me last year for a college senior. A couple dogs, though. We rescued them.”
Dalton didn’t care for the expression “sucked,” so he looked across the way and gave a slight nod to Davis. Now there was a soldier. Davis had served for 36 years, met his wife, Gloria, in the service, too. They were there together tonight, which was rare. Most spouses didn’t attend. Those who had them here were envied. Dalton didn’t like the attribute of envying others, but he made an exception for Davis.
“Nineteen, Brazos,” he said. “Nineteen. You know how many years older I am?”
Brazos glanced down, read Dalton’s name at his seat that included the pertinent information: Truman Dalton, Army, Staff Sergeant.
“Sir, yes, sir.”
“I got 65 years on you,” Dalton said as much to the pine-scented air as to the young airman. “Mind if I borrow some of your years?”
Brazos frowned. This being the first time to attend the party, he wondered if that’s how it worked—that a person could lend or borrow years here.
“I’m messing with you, Brazos,” Dalton said. “I can’t, but if only I could, I would. There were a few places I still wanted to see, but couldn’t make the long flights. Normandy. I wanted to see the beaches of Normandy with my own eyes, son. You ever been to Normandy?”
“Damn shame. You would be able to fly there, no problem. You’d fly all over because your knees would cooperate. Life is time and time is life.”
“Maybe for some,” Brazos said, “But my story is different.”
“Your story? You aren’t old enough to have a story, are you? You couldn’t be in for, what, more than a year?’ Dalton asked.
“Yes. I joined right out of high school. My dad was in the Army. Is in the Army,” Brazos said.
“That’s right fine. A military family. I have a grandson who is a Marine in North Carolina at the moment,” Dalton said, remembering. His grandson was the whole enchilada. Make a plan and work the plan, that had been his advice and his grandson seized upon it. Just a little older than Brazos, he now pondered, which made him shake his head. “Now that I think about it, did I see your kin earlier? When they were doing the decorating for this shindig?”
Earlier, it was rushed and confusing. Dalton had stood to the side, hands folded, and tried to stay out of everyone’s way. Now, he had a vague recollection of Brazos being nearby, over by the newer seats.
“No, sir, he wasn’t here. I don’t think he wanted to come,” Brazos said. “I left home…without saying goodbye.”
“That’s not so terrible,” Dalton said. “Gene over there did the same.”
“No, I think it was bad. Or it is,” Brazos said.
“Sometimes folks don’t like to come for the big holiday event. Or they come later when it’s not so crowded,” Dalton
said. He could see Brazos’ face tick up a notch.
“Yeah?” Brazos said.
“A young man like you,” Dalton said, “who I can plainly see, is fit, and sure, maybe you had a break-up with that girl, but she is only one. When you get it right, life is good. All the places you can travel with someone or just having a sweet someone to bring a cup of coffee too, that’s a swell thing. Just ask Davis over there.”
Across the way, Davis and Gloria began to dance. Davis spun her in his arms, humming some old Louis Armstrong tune that turned the heads of several men and women who knew it. A round of smiles morphed into thin lines of unhappiness.
“Ah, now, why the long faces?” Davis asked. “Let’s begin the remembrances!”
A long string of tall tales unspooled as usually happened. The nature of this party often extended into the wee hours and so everyone talked about the people they missed, favorite meals, cars they dreamed of driving again, and trips to the world’s loveliest places. And Gene from the Navy, who had the best time rebuilding a boat dock on Cedar Creek Lake with his brother one year and that it STILL stood firm and in place and what a great experience that was. To build something lasting. Everyone loved Gene’s story about the dock. Dalton found himself with a grin on his face.
“I suppose everyone has a dock,” Dalton mumbled.
“Sir?” Brazos asked, but Dalton just let the idea sit there and marinate.
Dalton thought back. He was too humble, always had been, to shout out a memory. And he could see there were several like him in the crowd. Kept life’s biggest moments—good and bad—to themselves. But he could think of a half dozen. Like his first job selling ice cream. When he’d gotten sick once, his daughter brought a novel he’d been reading to the hospital. Only two chapters left. And she read them, every page and word because he liked to finish things and she knew it.
“Why’re you smiling,” Brazos asked.
“Remembering,” Dalton said. And then, the old man turned to him and was startled all over again by Brazos’ youth.
“You make me sad, which is hard to do because this place is pretty swell and my knee is fit as a fiddle.”
“It had to be a field exercise gone wrong? Or, gosh damn, a car accident because everyone on the road today is a bona fide idiot! That’s what it was, right, son? Road idiots?”
“Then what? What kind of strange accident befell you, son?”
“You know, in basic training, how they tell you to walk with purpose, always,” Brazos said quietly.
“I left…with purpose, sir. On my own,” Brazos said.
“What?” Dalton asked, and then, the pair locked eyes and Brazos transmitted his startling truth. Dalton wasn’t much for being shocked, but this did the trick. “Oh, oh, I see. Well.”
The air grew still, colder.
It nearly broke Dalton and he wanted to embrace the sad young airman, he really did, but his shade slipped across his shadow, that was the only touching they could do. Dalton glanced the few feet behind him, nodded, reading Brazos’ seat.
“So young.” Dalton shook his head dolefully. “Wish I’d talked to you first, not that it would have done any good, I’m sure your kin talked to you. It’s just…”
“I understand, sir.”
“Well, back to last deployment,” Dalton said. “It really is nice here. Peaceful.”
“One more thing, sir,” Brazos ventured. The old man’s eyes narrowed and he almost paused his courage. “I’d like to
say I’m sorry…to someone, so I guess it’ll have to be you. It sounds stupid, I know, but it helps. Even on this side of things.”
“This side of things, yes, well,” Dalton sort of grunted, the air was beginning to feel uncomfortably emotion-filled. A memory floated back to him. When his daughter was about to set out on her own, loading her car and he, clamming up with stubbornness. There were words, but he couldn’t reach then. All he could say then was Don’t forget to change your oil. It had sounded gruff. Nothing like the loving phrase he couldn’t bring himself to say.
It was like that, there with Brazos. The reaching for the right words and coming up empty.
“Airman Brazos, we must all be prepared to forgive like a child,” Dalton said.
“That’s very nice, sir.”
“Don’t credit me, I heard the Queen of England say it once. Always liked her for her grit, you know?”
“Sure,” Brazos replied.
“We must all be prepared to forgive like a child, something like that, so I expect many feel that way. Your family, I mean. And even though I wish you were out dancing with some fiery red-head or skiing in Vale or heck, just having a cup of coffee someplace with music,” Dalton trailed off, his flash of old dreams dying down. “You’re done with all
that now. At ease like the rest of this soiree.”
Brazos wobbled. “That’s some nice thoughts, sir.”
“Forgiveness is the antidote to regret,” Dalton said. “Now that’s a fortune cookie. The wife had it taped to the fridge.”
“Thank you, sir.” Brazos suddenly saluted the old man.
Dalton felt that uncomfortable tug to be emotional again. He resisted it. Still, he felt at peace about the whole thing. That’s what the great party with Gene and Davis and Gloria and all the others gave you. Peace. Peace you couldn’t describe to someone else for a million bucks.
“I hope they come later like you said. My family,” Brazos said. Now Dalton couldn’t reply with anything but a shake of his head. The festivities were winding down.
And then Davis and Gloria and Gene and Dalton and Brazos and all the others in Section 96 of the National Cemetery resumed their posts. Dalton always loved scanning the rolling fields at this part of the event. Forty-four thousand servicemen and women stood sentinel across the garden of dead heroes. All different in life, but the same in death, Dalton whispered to himself. But maybe that was another fortune cookie, too, he couldn’t remember now.
The moon rose as they settled into their beds beneath the newly laid Christmas wreaths, sighing out one last goodbye: see ya at next year’s party.
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