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July 15, 2024

Fortunate Son

By Mitchell Waldman

Delores Leary picked up the baseball mitt sitting on the undisturbed blue cover of the single bed. It was one of two beds in the room, the one that her son, Andy, had occupied when he'd been there. She stroked the worn brown leather palm of the mitt and brought it close to her face to smell its musky scent. Then she closed her eyes and found herself traveling back, back to those innocent days, driving Andy and Ricky to their little league games, sitting in the bleachers, watching the two of them run across the sun-bleached field in their green Dorsey Dodge uniforms. She'd been so proud, watching her little guys, cheering them on every time one of them came to bat, or a ball was hit in their direction. And she'd always been there to encourage them with a smile, or a pat on the back when one of them dropped a ball, struck out, or was thrown out trying to steal a base.

She buried her face in the leather, fell across the bed, and wept silent tears. She remembered his face, those eyes, that smile, that beacon of unadulterated light that seemed like it would burn forever. But that was then.

- - - - - - - - - -

A car commercial was playing on the television. Delores lit a cigarette and winced. When it had happened she'd taken up smoking again after having quit for ten years. The tune in the background was Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son." Ironic, she thought. A large flag, ghostly, superimposed in the background, was waving in the wind as a midnight blue sports car drove by fast, dust flying up by the roadside. The advertisers missed the point. It was an antiwar song, but they'd distorted it for their own use, to sell cars, all-American cars, made to a great extent in Japan.

She thought of Andy, her own very misfortunate son.

Another ad came on, this one for the Marines. A line of strong, iron-jawed men in dress blues marched and saluted while the crowd clapped and cheered in the background waving flags. Patriotism -- what was that? The heading ran across the screen: "A few good men. Are you man enough to fit the bill?"

Man enough. She couldn't take it. She felt dizzy, grasped for the remote and hit the red button. And then there was only silence in the house. A strange, reverberating stillness. And the swishing of cars outside in the rain.

What had he been thinking when he'd decided to join up? Had he been caught up by the flag-waving, the propaganda? A few good men, a few good men for what? To die? It was bullshit, pure bullshit. It wasn't the advertisers' sons going over there, still children, scared children, not knowing what the hell they were doing, acting like men, prey to their macho preachings. Boys wanted to be men. Of course. So this was how they could prove themselves. Is that what Andy had thought? That this would make him a man?

- - - - - - - - - -

He was sitting next to Ricky at the dinner table playing with his peas, moving them to the back of his plate. He hadn't touched his lamb chops. It wasn't like Andy not to eat. He was just sitting there, staring at his plate. Meanwhile blonde-haired Ricky, a year younger than his brother, was shoveling the last bite of his chop into his mouth, chewing greedily, smacking his belly and belching, this big goofy smile on his face.

"God, Rick, that's gross!" Delores said. "Where did you learn your manners from, the zoo?"

Ricky laughed, but Andy wasn't reacting at all, still staring obliviously at his plate. The younger boy stopped laughing and stared at his brother.

"Okay, Andy boy, what is it?" Delores asked. "What's wrong with my little boy?"

Andy looked up at his mother, his eyebrows pulled together, his eyes narrowed to two small slits. "Maybe that's it, Mom. I'm not your little boy anymore. I'm eighteen. Or haven't you noticed?"

"Yeah, yeah, you're eighteen. Let me tell you something. You'll always be my little boy, even when you're eighty and I'm dead."

"Oh, very nice, Mom," Ricky said, and started laughing.

Andy was still staring at her with his deadpan look. Then he spilled it: "Joe Martin's joining the Army." Joe Martin was his best friend. They'd been Cub Scouts together, gone fishing together, then, when they were older, had gone on double dates together.

"He is? What does his mother say about it?"

"Jesus, Mom, that's the whole point. What can she say about it? Joe's a man now."

"Just because you're eighteen and you've had a smoke and a beer and maybe got laid doesn't necessarily qualify you for membership in the Man Club. Does his mother still cook his meals, do his laundry for him, pick up after him?"

"You're missing the point, Mom. Joe's joining up, and ... I think I just might, too. What with all this terrorist shit happening and 9/11 and all the Arabs ..."

There was a moment of shock -- her heart was racing and she couldn't breathe, couldn't move or say a word. She thought of how he had looked dressed in his blue Cub Scout uniform with the gold neck kerchief. There was a picture in their foyer of Andy and Joe in these uniforms, arms around each other grinning. Joe freckled and missing one of his front teeth, Andy, hat on crooked, covering a brown mop of hair, crossing his eyes, acting generally goofy and bright like the star that he had seemed to Delores in those days, the brightest star in her sometimes ink black sky. It seemed like only yesterday. How could she be listening to the same boy now, grown up, or almost grown up, talking about "plans," things that no mother could listen to without her heart palpitating, words that no mother could bear to hear?

"I've got to do my share," he said, jaw set. "For all of us." He sounded like some stranger who had walked in the front door and sat himself down at her kitchen table.

"Dad served. I want to do my part, too."

Dad, who in Andy's more bitter moments he referred to as "the Sperm Donor." What could she say while the voice inside her head was screaming "No!!!" She took a deep breath and spoke, trying to battle with him, reason with him. "What about college? You were talking about that, about getting an athletic scholarship, going to college, maybe becoming a doctor. And what about how you've always wanted to help people? How are you going to help people by shooting at them?"

"God, Mom, you don't understand! This is doing something for people. For our people. We're talking about our survival here!"

Delores couldn't believe what she was hearing. She shook her head, and put her hand on his cheek. "You really believe that?"

Andy pulled away from her. "Yes, I really believe that." He looked right at her, firmly, not batting a lash. Then he softened some, turned his gaze down, and stared at his hands, his long slender fingers stretched out on the table top. Suddenly he didn't look so grown up, he didn't look quite so sure of himself. "And, as for school, that can wait. Anyway, I don't know, my grades generally suck and I have no idea what I really want to do. Plus there's the New GI Bill. Sergeant Conners said that would help out financially when I get out."

When I get out. It echoed in her ears.

If you get out, a voice in her head corrected. This thought came out sooner than she could process it, making her whole body shudder. This was her baby she was thinking about. She felt sick to her stomach, like she was going to vomit, rose from the table and bolted for the bathroom.

"Mom, you all right in there? You didn't die or anything, did ya'?"

She got off her knees, flushed the toilet, smoothed down her blouse and looked at herself in the mirror, trying a smile on for her boys. Not a very convincing one, she was sure, but it would have to do.

"I'm fine, Andy, just must've been something I ate." Then she opened the door and tried that smile out on them, Andy standing there with the concerned look, hands on his hips, and his "little brother," the body builder who was at least twice as wide as Andy, bending over, putting his hand gently on his mother's back, saying, "Are you all right, Mom? Are you sure you're all right?"

- - - - - - - - - -

The phone call came on a Tuesday evening. She was watching a game show, Hollywood Squares. She watched anything other than the news these days. Comedies especially, love stories. Even cartoons and game shows. Anything to keep from hearing the real stuff, the news about the war.

It was a Sergeant Young who called. He didn't say why but he wanted to come see her. Personally. She was terrified when she heard him say that. It could only mean one thing, couldn't it? Or maybe she was just jumping to conclusions. Maybe she'd seen one war movie too many.

When the knock came at the door she didn't know what to do. She continued to sort the mail and papers lying on the table in her kitchen, afraid to move. Again the knock. The vibrations of the BOOM BOOM BOOM reverberated through her body like an electrical shock. She stacked her papers and envelopes neatly, brushed back her hair, and walked slowly, feeling her insides quiver as she approached the door. She felt like she was watching someone else as she turned the bolt lock, pulled open the door and stared at a soldier in dress blues standing there with a somber look, hands clasped in front of his belt. She sighed, while the woman she was watching asked the man to come in.

He was sitting on the couch, a good-looking twentyish man with a brush of blond hair on the top of his head. What was he doing here? Why wasn't he sitting somewhere in some office, staring safely at some computer screen, or working at a toy store customer service desk, shining those blue eyes on unhappy customers, apologizing for the air gun that didn't fire right, rather than sitting here now doing what he was about to do?

Andy was eight years old preparing for his role in a class room production of Sleeping Beauty. He was playing the part of the Handsome Prince mainly because no other boy in the class had had the courage to do so. Delores tried to imagine him sticking his hand straight up in the air while the other boys tittered behind their hands or stared down at their desks, trying to avoid the gaze of their teacher, Mrs. Bowman, after she'd called for volunteers to fill the role. How proud she'd been of him when he'd told her about it. Not that he hadn't been afraid to. He had never been one to shy away from his fears. He'd learned his lines the week before the play and when time came to deliver, he'd strode right up onto the stage and delivered the lines expertly, without flinching.

And when the time had come for him to "do his part," as he'd said, he hadn't flinched either. She wished he would have flinched a little sometimes. But with Andy, it had always been charge right into it, without question. He never lacked decisiveness, that was for sure. And look where it had gotten him. Just look.

The young man sat on the sofa across from Delores. She had her manners on, asked him if he wanted something to drink. He smiled and said a glass of water would be fine. It was a hot day. One of those 95-in-the-shade types of days.

She walked very carefully into the kitchen, maintaining control, opened the refrigerator door, poured the water from the jug, closed the refrigerator door, and walked just as carefully back to the living room. Her hand shook only slightly as she brought the glass to the young man.

She'd forgotten his name, although she was sure he had told her when he'd appeared at the door. Suddenly, it seemed so important to know his name, like her son's very life hinged on knowing it.

I'm sorry," she said, leaning over, handing the trembling glass to the man, "your name was ...

"Just call me Derron, Mrs. Leary."

"Derron," she said, feeling nothing at all. Just numbness. Like this was some sort of strange dream, not quite real.

He took the glass from her, took a long drink from it, wiped his brow, and set the glass on the end table next to the couch. Then he folded his hands together and looked across at Delores. "The reason I'm here, Mrs. Leary, is that your son, Andy, is what we call Missing in Action." He paused for a moment watching. She sat in her chair, hands neatly folded on her lap, staring at the young man, watching his mouth move. Feeling nothing still, numb from head to toe. Staring at this man, this boy, because that's all he was, a boy who'd been given the task of telling the unspeakable to the mother of another boy he probably never even met. While older men, politicians and rogues who planned all the wars, the attacks, sat in comfy leather chairs, she imagined, smoking cigars, and drinking twenty year old brandy, thinking up their next stratagem, not thinking of the lives of these boys and their families that would be affected by what to them were games, mere games. In her mind she saw them laughing and carrying on, maybe tossing in a dirty joke or an ethnic joke here or there. Maybe one about Arabs, no doubt one about Arabs, Iraqis. There always had to be someone to kick around, to blame for things, to look down on. Someone to feel better than. To stomp on. But we're all people, she thought, aren't we? If we kill one of theirs, if we kill fifty of theirs, there are still possibly fifty sets of parents on their side who have lost a son. Just like her. Missing in Action. She knew what that meant, even though he went on to explain: "This means nothing more than that his whereabouts are currently unaccounted for."

She nodded stiffly only because it was what he wanted her to do. But then, she put her head down and she couldn't help herself. She started to weep. Sitting straight upright, her hands positioned along the blue denim covering her upper thighs, and crying like a fountain, silently. Weeping tears that she'd held for hours since she'd gotten the call and knew what was coming.

Andy was dead. She knew he was and nothing that this or any other person could say would change that. "Missing in Action" just meant they hadn't found him yet. She showed the Sergeant to the door. He turned sharply when she opened the screen door and shook her hand. "We'll let you know when we have more information. And don't be overly concerned. He may just be misplaced for the moment."

Misplaced. What a strange way to put it and what a terrible, cowardly thing to do, to lie to a dead boy's mother. She felt like saying something, the anger building in her, but said only, "Thank you, Sergeant," and watched him walk stiffly, cap in hand, to his car.

Just misplaced. She almost wanted to laugh aloud, cackle rudely at the boy, but the hollow pit in her chest prevented her from doing so. It was the place where her heart had been. Her misplaced heart.

- - - - - - - - - -

She had started working at the high school when Andy had just entered his freshman year. Why had she taken the job there after losing the job at the real estate agency? Because she couldn't stand to be too far away from him, to lose a grip on her little boy?

In four short years that probably felt like decades to Andy, she'd watched him mature into a young man in the halls of that high school. She'd seen him gain confidence and muscle and add a swagger to his step as he approached the girls his age, who all seemed to adore him. He'd been the quarterback on the football team, a pitcher in baseball. Some college was bound to pick him up, award him a sports scholarship, despite his grades, which hadn't been too bad, really. He was good. So why had he shut the door on them, shut the door on his education and gone the way he'd gone?

Some mistakes you can change, some things you can go back and fix but this, as it seemed to turn out, was not one of them. But one life to give to my country. Nathan Hale. The fabled phrase being that he'd regretted that he'd but one life to give to his country. Only twenty-one when he was hanged by the British. She wasn't sure why she remembered these facts all of a sudden, this remnant of her own studies long since past, but the words rang with a shrill clarity through her brain as she sipped her morning coffee and read the headlines about the war, about Iraq, a place no one in their right mind would go to of their own volition. A hostile land, but a land filled with people, people like she and Andy, with mothers and sons and brothers and fathers. Who breathed the same air, needed food and water, love and understanding. Killing each other for what? Some political agenda? Differences of opinion? For private capitalistic interests of certain politicos afraid that they and their buddies might lose a share of their profits? For the flexing of the almighty male muscle? Aggression, ape-like shows of brutality? King of the hill politics? Terrorizing a country because of a few bad apples who just so happened, unfortunately, to have been in power at the time and had been, ironically, terrorizing their own citizens? Not clear. Made no sense. Police force of the world -- USA. Andy wasn't a Fortunate Son. And Delores sure as hell didn't feel like a Fortunate Mother these days either. No way, not at all. All she saw of the world now was through tear-stained eyes. It was like gazing through a glass of water, a river of tears.

- - - - - - - - - -

She didn't know why she called him -- Jerry, her ex, the role model for her boy to sacrifice himself for a war he knew nothing about. He, like his father, had gone to fight other men's battles, fighting for secret political and businessmen's agendas behind the red white and blue shining in the sun as a facade for the real reasons for these battles of power. Why did men always start wars? To overcome insecurities about the sizes of their penises? To show that their muscles were bigger than those of the other testosterone-laced warriors?

When Jerry pulled up to the door in his beat up Chevy Blazer, she was almost sorry she'd called him. What had she been thinking? Their marriage had been a sham for a long time. Ever since the war, since he'd come home with the severed arm. He'd lost more than an arm then. He'd lost his humanity, his spirit. He was not the man he had been, but seemed, after Vietnam, to be just a shell of that person. Still, she had stayed with him for a long time, too long. Long enough to give birth to Andy and Ricky. She'd felt guilty about it, somehow, that he had gotten injured. She took care of him. But why? After twelve years of marriage she asked herself that question and realized how ridiculous her guilt was. She had not committed war, she had not ripped off his arm in the middle of a fire fight. She had done nothing but absorb his pain for twelve long, sad, empty years. And, after twelve years she had packed Jerry's bags one sunny autumn day and told him to move out. He must have seen it coming -- he knew they didn't have a functioning marriage anymore -- because all he did was nod and pick up the bags, a hangdog look on his face, and walked out the door.

And this was the man that Andy had been inspired by. He hadn't known his father before the shell shock of war, how he had smiled and laughed and imitated his high school teachers. He had, in fact, been the class clown. And after the war, if he cracked a smile once in a month it was something of an aberration, a miracle almost, the ghost of the Jerry she had known in the past.

She stood by the front door, peering out the little window, watching him, in his Cubs cap, slam the door of his Blazer, walk around the car slowly, and trudge up the walk. When he got to the steps, she opened the door before he could ring the bell. He almost fell into the house, but caught himself, his good arm swinging in the air ? he looked like a high wire walker, catching his balance and straightening his body in one fluid motion. Jerry could be more graceful looking than she'd ever suspected, but after years of doing the one-armed man routine, she figured he'd mastered it pretty well.

"Got a beer?" were the first words out of his mouth. Not "Hello," or "How're the boys?" or "How are you?" nothing as cordial as that. Just, "Got a beer?" like he stopped over there every other day.

"Uh, no, Jerry. Sorry about that. No beer." He pulled his cap off and stared at her, looking confused for a moment, then shrugged. "Okay," he said. His reddish hair was thinning and mussed, he had what looked like two days of stubble on his face, and was wearing one of those red checked flannel shirts that he seemed so fond of. It could have been the same one she saw him in the last time he'd been there (what had it been two, three months ago when he'd actually shown up to visit with Ricky, take him to a baseball game?)

He walked into the living room and dropped down on the couch, like he belonged there, like he still lived there. Delores just stared at the man, wondering who he was, who he had become, and wondering why on earth she had called him here, why she had thought, in a moment of insanity, that he could somehow calm her fears, soothe her sorrows, her feelings of loss.

"If you wanted some beer, you should have brought your own," Delores said, hands on hips. "Anyway, this isn't a fucking social call. It's about our son. It's about Andy. He's missing."

She was staring at him, looking for some reaction in his face, in those foggy eyes. "Missing?" was all he said, like he hadn't served in Nam, like he had no understanding of what the word meant.

"Yes, Jerry, missing, like Missing in Action, MIA, gone, gone, gone." She raised her hand to her face to cover the tears and to block out everything -- she didn't want to see the world, and certainly didn't want to see Jerry's reaction, him feeling sorry for her, he of all people. In a moment though, through the silence of the room, the heaviness of her sobs in a room decorated with cheery daisy covered wallpaper (what had she been thinking when she did that?), she felt his thick hand on her back tentatively, and he said in his breathy voice, "It's okay, Delores. It'll be all right." To which she reacted violently, shaking his hand off of her, staring at his dumb, emotionless face, and shouting, "No, Jerry, it will not be all right, it was never all right! You are not all right -- look what they did to you -- your son is not all right, this world is not all right as long as we're sending our boys to slaughter for no logical reason!"

He was staring back at her now, arms by his sides, his amputated limb hanging there in the tied off shirt, a hopeless, useless appendage, a reminder of what Jerry seemed to have become -- a hollow, hopeless, defenseless man. He looked like he was about to cry, and Delores was immediately sorry, but she wouldn't, she couldn't say it, just held her breath waiting for him to go, just go. After a few minutes he got the idea, picked up his baseball cap off the couch, and mumbled, "I'm sorry, I was just trying to help." He stood there, looking at her and stumbled toward the door without another word. Delores watched him and calmly said, as he was opening the screen door, "He's dead, Jerry. Our son is dead." He didn't seem to hear it or chose not to as the screen door slammed behind him and he walked stiffly, like some sort of slow monster, long since robbed of his powers, back to his car.

- - - - - - - - - -

Days went by, then weeks without any further word from the Army, from Sergeant Young. The war went on, more reports of the constantly increasing death toll of American soldiers, and of prisoners being beheaded, coming every day. It got to the point where she didn't want to hear any more. She just wanted to stuff her fingers in her ears, and shut her eyes tight, not hear or see another word about war. Everywhere she went -- the grocery store, the hairdresser, the gas station -- people were talking about it. How many more of their kids would die? The argument over whether the President had been right in invading the country and whether it was unpatriotic to question his intent in getting the terrorists. She wanted to move to a different country, a place where her son would not have been sent to such a place to lay his life on the line. But it was too late for that now anyway. Too late, too late, too late.

So what do you do when you think your son is dead? What can you do is the question? You go on through the motions, throwing loads of laundry into the washing machine, clearing dishes from the dishwasher, sweeping the floor, cutting the grass, making coffee, reading the newspaper, like everything's okay, everything's normal. But nothing's okay, nothing's normal, nothing's the same. The world has been spun on its side, and it's like you're a top spinning, looking for something to grab onto to regain your balance, but there's nothing to grab, nothing at all. You close your eyes and listen to the cars swish by, hearing the rain water splashing in the street. And as the sun falls and the shadowy lines of night creep into the solitude of your room, you wonder if the next person who knocks on the door or the next voice on the phone will be that of your son, your missing son.

She heard nothing, but was afraid to call the Sergeant, afraid almost to breathe. She played a game, acted as if Andy were on a vacation somewhere. She even imagined where he was, at a beach somewhere, Florida maybe. She would close her eyes and imagine watching him lay a towel on the hot sand, see the perspiration sliding down his cheek and chin. Imagining him with his buddies, sneaking beers out of a small cooler and making cracks about some of the girls walking by in their skimpy bikinis. "Get a load of that one," she could hear him say, tipping his head towards a blonde-haired girl in a hot pink bikini, hitting his friend, Joe, with the back of his hand. "I'd love to get a load of that, are you kiddin'?" And then they were laughing, crazy carefree laughter, the way they had used to, the way he had, before ... before ...

- - - - - - - - - -

It was just after their last football game of the season. Their senior year. Their last football game. It was about one o'clock in the morning when she'd heard a ruckus outside, swept the lace curtains in her bedroom back and peered out the window to see Andy and Ricky and Joe walking arm in arm, laughing and singing the lyrics to "Satisfaction" at the top of their lungs, slipping and swaying down the sidewalk, this huge six-legged drunken teenage monster boy. It was a wonder people weren't yelling out the window and that a police car wasn't rolling up beside them to give them a talking to. It was all she could do to get her robe wrapped around her and hop down the stairs when she heard the front door open and the three boys tumble into her foyer laughing and singing and falling onto the floor. Punching each other and howling and being boys. Andy among the pile on the floor with his broad grin and deep laugh, long arms and legs sprawled by his side like a helpless infant. Not a fragment of anything but innocence in his big brown eyes. She'd meant to yell at them, scold them for drinking, tell them they were being way too loud and disrespectful, that people were sleeping. But seeing them, seeing Andy like that, she'd just melted, stood there in the doorway watching them with her arms crossed in front of her, a stern look painted on her face. It was all she could do to stop from laughing. Taking it all in, their youth, their innocence, their exuberance. Drinking it in with her eyes, this wide smile on her face, feeling like her face was going to crack she was smiling so widely then.

And that moment was so brief, just a minute sliver of the pie, a sparkling fleck of dust in the nighttime, a single moment in the infinite moments of time.

She would trudge to work every day at the high school, where she worked in the office. She no longer felt like the young woman she had once been, who rushed headlong into the new day, excited to meet the challenges awaiting her. Now it was like life had become a series of motions repeated on a daily basis. There no longer seemed to be any point in any of it. And her mind was always on Andy. There was a hole inside of her. It wasn't just her son, but it felt like her heart was also missing in action.

She was driving to work on a lightly traveled road and saw a fuzzy gray object streak in front of her car. She swerved to miss it, almost running off the road, and squealed her brakes. She got out of the car, shaking, looking back at the space where she had been. The sun was shining and the birds were chirping from the overhanging trees, which swayed in the gentle summer breeze. In the middle of the road lay a small squirrel motionless on his side, his eyes closed, his tiny little paws curled up under his little jaw. And then there was the shock -- his snow white belly. It was totally unexpected. She had assumed squirrels were all just gray or brown or something in between. She had never really given them much thought. She walked toward the animal cautiously, shaking at the thought that she had killed this innocent creature. Tears running down her cheeks, then sobbing.

There was the sound of a car approaching. The little animal was lying right on the double yellow line. She couldn't let the remnant of her violent act be made even worse. So she stood like a guard in front of the little animal her feet planted firmly, her arms raised, palms forward as a small red sports car approached and squealed its brakes to a stop, just a foot from where she was standing, where she would not budge. Two young men in business suits yelled at her, one yelling "Get out of the road, crazy lunatic!!" the other yelling "Loony bitch!" Okay, she was a lunatic, a loony bitch and she was sure she must look like a sight, a fright, her mascara all running down her cheeks now from the tears, but she didn't care. She had murdered the little squirrel with her monster machine and the least she could do was give it a decent burial. The tremors ran through her body as the tiny red car sputtered off. She pulled off her sweater and carefully bent down to the spot where he lay, so peacefully, so sadly, the birds singing his eulogy, the sun warming the remains of his soul. Did animals have souls? She didn't know, but she assumed they did. She got right next to the gray squirrel. She was not afraid, bent down and stroked its soft white belly, so naked looking in the daylight, in the bright sun, the tears streaming down her cheeks now. She stared at him for thirty seconds or so, then wrapped him up like an infant in her sweater and held the tiny animal close to her breast.

Once inside the car, she put the sweater on the passenger seat beside her and pulled her cell phone out of her purse. She dialed the school's number and told the vice principal, Anne McCoffrey, that she had had a little accident. No, she was all right, she said. Just a little shook up. She would be in a little later. Then she turned the car around, and her hands still shaking on the wheel, headed back home. There she would get out her shovel and, the tears still flowing, would try not to think about what she was really thinking, dig a three foot deep hole in her garden behind the tomato plants and plant her little friend, the innocent victim, the one who hadn't known, who hadn't seen her coming. Lying him in a place of peace and, she hoped, eternal rest.

- - - - - - - - - -

Two months after Sergeant Young came to her door and shattered her world, she could not think straight, could not go an hour without crying or feeling like she was about to cry. She called the Army every day, sometimes twice, three times a day and the answer was always the same: No news.

She was falling apart.

Sometimes it didn't seem like she could make it through another day.

At night she would awaken three, sometimes four times a night, for, it seemed, no reason at all. But there was a reason. A waiting, an expectancy of something. Something like Andy rushing through the door, that big wide grin on his face as he would throw his muscled arms around her and she would say, softly, almost to herself, patting his back lightly: "You made it, you finally made it home."

Other times there were nightmares. Grotesque images of someone who looked like Andy, starting as a teenager, with the gleaming smile, the bright clear eyes, the reddened cheeks from spending a crisp winter day playing out in the snow and ice. And after that the face would change before her eyes, melt almost so that it was dripping, misshapen, like a melted candle and the smile would turn downward, disappear altogether into the bottom of his chin. And his body would become deformed, parts of limbs hanging, looking more like a tattered scarecrow. It was sort of a theme, a recurring dream. The most terrifying of all was when, instead of flying through the door to greet her, wrap his arms around her, he came through the door and reached out for her but had nothing to reach with, lacking arms, only the sockets where they should have been, and as he reached over to hug her, he fell face first to the floor, his face cracking like glass, while she helplessly bent down, weeping, shaking, crying "Andy, are you okay, are you okay, Honey?" And in the midst of all this Ricky would show up with a broom and a dust pan, seemingly without emotion, and sweep the cracked shards of his brother's face into the pan and toss them into the trash, only his brother's torso remaining, lifeless on the floor, a hunk of useless flesh which she clung to, her heart nearing the breaking point, wailing to the ceiling, but there was no one there, no one was listening. What of God, where was he, if he was, and why wouldn't he do something to bring her child back to her?

She would wake up, her body drenched in sweat, her heart pounding and her mind racing, it taking her a minute to realize that no, this had not actually happened, it was just a dream. She would sit up in bed, her arms wrapped around herself, holding herself like a baby. Then, unable to sleep, she would fix herself a cup of tea, turn on the tube, drape a blanket over herself, her cold sweat bringing a chill to her body. If she was having a lucky night she might doze off an hour or two before it was time to wake up again and go through the morning drudgery of getting ready for work. Other nights she wasn't so lucky and would never fall asleep at all, but would prepare herself to work, and drag herself through the day like some sort of awakened corpse, one of the faceless nameless creatures in Dawn of the Dead, walking around that shopping mall aimlessly reaching reaching reaching for something, for nothing, for everything.

She told herself that she was strong, but no one could be this strong. She would talk to friends. Her oldest, dearest friend, Becky, would sit there and hold her and cry with her. They had grown up together, gotten married and had children together and had been close always, sharing their secrets, loves, and hates, their fear and their pain. The pain and fear that comes from raising a child in this world. And when you lose a child -- what greater pain does a mother have than that? They were like sisters, holding each other, Becky comforting Delores through the night. But when Becky left the pain was still there, there was no getting rid of it. And Jerry, Jerry was Andy's father, but he was more like a child than anything. He just didn't seem to comprehend. Ricky, you couldn't even talk to him about it.

When she had first told Ricky that Andy was Missing in Action, he had just smiled and wrapped his arms around his mother, saying, "Don't worry, Mom. He'll be back. He's just missing. Don't go worrying for nothing." Then, with a smile reminiscent of Andy's but not quite as broad or convincing, he had walked off to school, whistling, actually whistling, as he'd picked up his books and pushed out the screen door.

And after that there had been little scenes. He was in a total state of denial, it seemed. One time sitting next to each other at dinner. The silence heavy between them. Delores watched as Ricky ate, looking at the empty seat beside him. She'd started crying then and Ricky had looked up at her for an instance, seemingly annoyed. Then he'd returned his attention to his steak, his knife and fork poised for attack.

She had said then, "He's not coming home, Ricky. Your brother's dead." In response to which Ricky threw his utensils across the room, hitting the wall, stood up and yelled at her, "I'm not going to take this, you acting like this. My brother is not dead. He's missing, missing, that's what the man said, right? Do you know what missing means? They don't know where he is right now, that's all. They didn't say he was dead!" He stormed out of the room then, and out of the house. She would have liked to console him, put her arms around him, and let him sink against her, like he used to, but he was becoming a man in his own right now, seventeen years old. He was no mama's boy anymore. He was at the age where showing your feelings was not allowed, was subject to the ridicule of all your peers.

But that wasn't what bothered Delores Leary. What bothered her most was the thought that maybe he wasn't feeling anything but anger. That maybe he really believed that Andy was still alive. Maybe Ricky was just in a state of total denial. And what would happen when he came out of it? Would he fall, break down? Would he, could he ever be the same without his big brother?

She tossed and turned at night, woke up staring at the clock, dragged herself to work, trying to find any information, any information about Andy, only to find nothing, an emptiness growing inside of her, like a black hole, threatening to swallow her up from the inside out. That was how it felt.

She woke up one morning and she couldn't go on. Couldn't even get out of her bed. She reached for the phone on her night stand and called in sick, gave her excuses and her regrets. Then lay there without an ounce of energy to move, without an ounce of motivation to do so.

Her son stopped in for a moment at her doorway and stared at her, just stared. "You're not going to work today?" he asked, to which she replied. "No, what's the point?"

"Is there anything I can get you?"

"No, nothing." To which he shrugged, shuffled with his hands in his khaki pockets, stared at his feet and mumbled, "Well, guess I gotta go."

"Okay, Sweetie," she said, and then, as he was walking away, without knowing why, said, "Be careful out there." Because that was how she felt. That it was a dangerous world. You couldn't take anything for granted anymore, not a thing.

She spent the day watching television and eating Oreos, dropping napkins and wrappers on her nightstand. A tiny mountain of paper would be there by the end of the day. The television voices, the inane smiles of its subjects, numbed her. It was a make believe world, a world of fantasy. The phone rang several times but she wouldn't answer it.

When Ricky came home from school and stopped in on her he came in slowly, cautiously. "Mom," he said, "are you all right?"

She sighed, as he stood at the side of her bed. "No, Honey, I'm not all right, I'm not I'm not I'm not." She broke down then, crying, and he bent down awkwardly and put one arm around her as she wept in his arms. After a few minutes she took a deep long breath and said, "I'm sorry, Ricky for not being strong for you, for disappointing you." To which Ricky said, "No, Mom, it's all right, you know it's all right. You've been taking care of me, of?us, for so long, sometimes we forget that you need taking care of, too." She smiled at him and put her hand on his face. Palm to cheek. "I love you, Ricky, I love you so much," she said, wrapping her arms tightly around her son, closing her eyes as the tears dripped off her cheeks.

And that night she slept, exhausted by it all, by the endless days of thinking, the endless nights of hoping.

It was that night that her son appeared in her dream, not a grotesque facsimile of Andy as in past dreams, but the perfect face of Andy, with all the lightness and clarity of his soul surrounding him as he walked out of what seemed like a foggy mist. She was sitting on the top of a hill for some reason, and out of this cloud appeared Andy, fresh as the morning sun, not a care in the world written on his face. Walking so calmly toward her, that wide smile lighting up the sky it seemed. He walked right toward her and paused, looking her right in the eye. Then he bent down on one crooked knee, grabbed one of her hands in his and said to her, "I'm fine, Mom. I'll be fine. There is no more pain anymore. I'm in a good place and you don't have to worry about me anymore, do you understand?" She started to cry in the dream, but he put his hand on her face, much like Delores had placed her hand on Ricky's face that same evening. And Andy said, "Don't cry for me, Mom. I'm all right." She stopped crying then and stared at him, her beautiful boy. For a second there was a flash of a body -- his body -- lying motionless in a field, eyes closed, arms lying beside him, his rifle lying on the hard dirt beside him. The image passed and it was Andy again. He nodded at her, smiling, then got up, turned and walked back to the cloud. He moved calmly into it and disappeared.

At that instant she awoke and felt a presence in the room. She looked around in the dark and seemed to see tiny lights. Or was she just imagining it? Imagining that the spirit of her son was there with her now, trying to console her, to make her feel at peace. And, oddly, she did feel better somehow. The pit of emptiness, of the unknown, of trying to understand it had been replaced, it seemed, with a calmness. Like the waves of the ocean washing gently upon the shores of time.

The next morning she got out of bed and felt different.

She was sitting on her porch, looking out at the day, waiting for him. And at ten to nine in the morning, Sergeant Young appeared right on schedule, pulling his car up to the curb, shutting his door softly, and walking toward the house, jaw set, to give her the news, the news she already knew.

An hour later, the Sergeant long gone, there was another knock on the door. Delores wiped her eyes, and got off the couch where she lay. When she opened the door, a young cub scout was standing there with bags of caramel corn to sell. She smiled at him as he said his name -- Matthew Stevens -- gave his learned spiel about raising money for the troop. "Okay," she said. "I'll take two, no wait ... give me three."

"That'll be six dollars," the boy said.

"Oh, wait," Delores said. "I left my money upstairs. Can you wait for me for a second?" The little brown-haired boy nodded. She invited him into the foyer, then ran upstairs to the boys' room.

When she came back down she said, "Oh, there's my purse," as if she had forgotten it, headed for the living room and pulled a five and a one out of her wallet. Then she walked toward the boy and handed him the money. He handed her the plastic wrapped bags of caramel corn. Then she pulled out the thing she held behind her back, and handed it to the boy.

"Umm, we generally only accept money, Ma'am."

"No, you don't understand," she said, "this is for you. I want you to have it. It's very special. It was my son's. He was a Cub Scout, too, but he would want you to have it now."

"Well," he said looking down at the baseball mitt, putting it on his hand and pounding it lightly with his fist, "if you really think it's all right ..."

She reached over and brushed the boy's hair out of his face quickly, and looked deep into his eyes. "I know it's all right, Matthew. Just think of it as a present from Andy."


"Andy was my son."

"Thanks, Ma'am. It's a nice mitt." He smiled, picked up his bag with his other hand and walked back down the walk, looking back at Delores, the mitt under his arm, and waved.

Delores smiled at the boy and waved back. In a moment, she thought, he would be walking down the street, out of sight, gone, gone forever.

Previously published in Worldwide Hippies.com

Article © Mitchell Waldman. All rights reserved.
Published on 2014-09-01
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