Healing through story

Category: short fiction (Page 1 of 8)

shortfiction24 – peter’s heavenly holiday

Peter enjoys a brief break from his gatekeeper duties. But long lines of souls pile up at the gates.

I enjoyed an exercise of “what if” speculation for this story. I hope you enjoy it as well.

Peter’s Heavenly Holiday

Bob Gillen

It’s a known fact that St. Peter guards the gates of Heaven. Well, perhaps guard isn’t the right word. More like monitors or oversees. No one is ever turned away.

What is little known is Peter has a crew that helps him admit souls to Heaven. On a normal day Peter can handle the admissions well enough. But normal days are relatively rare these days. The earth’s population has grown exponentially, and the world continually suffers with death-dealing events.

Peter’s crew are individual souls who are earning their way into full joy and eternal bliss. Despite common belief, there is no Purgatory or Hell. The afterlife is only Heaven. But within Heaven there are levels of bliss. Most souls need to atone for something to earn higher levels of joy.

Peter has been at the gates for two thousand years, in earthly time. Ever since shortly after Jesus told him he was the rock on which Jesus’s church would be set. While there’s no measurement for time in the spirit world, Peter would tell you he’s been on the job for a long time. He doesn’t remember who had the job before him. Not important, anyway.

So, here’s Peter, standing at the gates 24/7. For two thousand years. Even spirits get tired. Peter’s second in command, Calvin, is earning his way to full bliss in Heaven. Calvin approached Peter.

“We got advanced notice. There’s going to be a massive earthquake tomorrow on earth. Many thousands of souls will be lining up at the gates. All at once.”

Peter groaned. “It never stops, does it?”

“Billions of people down there. Earth’s population keeps growing.”

“I’m tired,” Peter said.

“Want a break? I can take over while it’s quiet.”

Peter nodded. “See you in a few.”

Peter smiled, moved off.

He wandered through sections of Heaven. First he passed the many souls enjoying full eternal bliss. Everyone entering Heaven got to see these souls first. Kind of a teaser. This is what you will enjoy when you have grown into it, earned a path to it.

Farther, deeper, into the folds of Heaven, he came upon the area reserved for those who have a long way to go before experiencing full joy. This was Heaven’s back forty. A dark aura pervaded. In earthly terms one would experience dark purple clouds, even an occasional flash of lightning. An area Peter took no joy in visiting. Hitler’s spirit resided here. So did the spirits of the clergy who had abused children. In one small corner were the spirits of several deceased American politicians, people who had boldly displayed willful ignorance in their years allegedly serving their constituents.

Peter moved on quickly. He found himself in a part of Heaven he wished he could spend all his time in. He enjoyed music. There wasn’t much one could call music when he was working on earth so many years ago. He had seen many musicians pass through the gates in his time as gatekeeper. He marveled at what they could do with instruments and voice. Here, too, were the spirits of children. School children. Children murdered by shooters in their own classrooms.

Peter smiled. Freddy Mercury, Janis Joplin, Loretta Lynn and Charlie Watts entertained this group of children. Actually, referring to them as children was a point of discussion. Was there any age distinction in Heaven? Were all spirits the same level of spirit regardless of their ages on earth? 

Peter has had this discussion with Calvin many times. With no definitive answer. Peter believed all souls would be equal when the last of times occurred.

The four musicians Peter knew well. They were in various stages of their own personal transitions into full joy. They provided joy for the children’s spirits until their parents and friends passed and joined them in Heaven. Peter lingered for a time, watching the musician spirits bring joy to the younger souls.

Peter had recently yearned to go back to earth for a visit, to attend a Springsteen concert. “Hungry Heart” was a favorite. But Peter had no time for that kind of activity.

He crossed to the section where well-known authors tended to gather. Hemingway, Sontag, Steinbeck, Seuss, Bradbury, Silverstein. Here, too, the creative process amazed him. Making scenes come to life with words. Many children’s souls lingered here, as the authors told stories of adventure and drama.

“Peter!”

The voice of Calvin.

“It’s time. Incoming.”

Peter sighed. Back to the gates.

There would be a day, he knew not when, when life on earth came to an end. Then no more souls would cross through the gates. His duties would be done. For the moment, however, souls kept coming.

Peter glanced at the children. Sighed. “I’ll be right back, Calvin.” 

***

shortfiction24 – small-town betty

The local shortline railroad that ran through Betty’s town made a sharp curve within inches of her house. For over sixty years, Betty lived with this oddity. Even with offers to relocate her home, Betty refused to leave.

Enjoy the story.

You can subscribe to my weekly newsletter here.

Small-town Betty

Bob Gillen

Betty Thorndyke has lived in her quaint, gingerbread-edged home for over sixty years. Her husband Charley, gone nine years, had built the house as soon as Betty accepted his proposal. Charley worked at Jaxon Industries, the local factory at the west end of their town. He loved the work, and thrived on having no land to cultivate, not even a lawn to cut or a shrub to trim. When Charley was not working, he was on the front porch with a can of beer in his hand.

Main Street in their little town spanned a mile-long stretch extending from Jaxon Industries at the town’s west end to Charley and Betty’s home, the last house on the east end. A short-line railroad served the factory and half a dozen other factories in the area.

Unlike many other rural main streets, this one had every shop occupied. Occupied and thriving. A hardware store, two grocery stores, a barber and a hair stylist, a diner. A strong local economy, thanks to the town’s factory, Jaxon Industries, which employed a number of residents from the town and the surrounding county. 

Every morning, Monday through Friday, a diesel locomotive pushed two empty box cars down the track in the middle of Main Street to the factory’s loading dock. The engine then coupled to one or two box cars loaded with Jaxon product to ship out. The engine pulled the cars back up Main Street, turned north around Betty’s house, and headed for the other factories. Twenty miles up the line the engine set out the loaded cars to be picked up by a mainline railroad.

The rail curve from Main Street around Betty’s home was sharp, the trains passing within a foot of the house. Any stranger to the town stood in amazement watching the train navigate the curve.

Betty and her husband Charley had lived in the house since they were married sixty years ago. The railroad track was there first. Charley bought the property because it was so cheap. Who would want a house so close to a railroad track? For Charley and his new bride it was not an issue. The train passed only in the morning, only Monday to Friday, only moving at slow speeds. 

Now long retired from her earlier career as a nurse, with Charley gone nine years ago, Betty sat on her front porch and waved to Benny the engineer each time he passed. Benny drove a re-built SW1200 diesel belonging to Forward Rail, the shortline servicing the area. It was a small diesel by railroad standards, but a monster when passing within a foot of someone’s front porch. The diesel’s shorter wheelbase and minimum turning radius made it an ideal choice for the town and the curve around Betty’s house. 

In the summer months, with schools closed, Forward Rail had two men, one on each side, walk Main Street with the train to keep the local kids from climbing on the box cars. That, after one boy slipped and lost a foot under the train.

David Bauer, CEO of Jaxon Industries, was a decent employer. He paid his people well enough, considering he was the only game in town. But Bauer was a business owner interested in making profits. And additional profits were proving elusive. Bauer’s business had grown strong enough that he could ship more product. And in turn he could offer more jobs for the town. But that would require larger, longer box cars. And those cars would not tolerate the sharp curve around Betty’s house. Not without tearing the corner off her building. Bauer had first approached Betty three years ago. He offered to pay to relocate her house fifty feet back from the railroad track. The cost would be incurred equally by his company and by Forward Rail.

Betty refused the offer. The house was precious to her. The view of the countryside south of her front porch was magnificent. And having to move to a motel during her home’s relocation was in no way attractive to her.

Bauer came back with his offer yearly. 

Betty’s answer was always the same. 

No.

The cost of moving the rail track away from Betty’s house would not be exorbitant, Bauer knew, but the down time would be prohibitive. Product had to move out daily.

Last year someone had proposed using trucks to move the product out to the mainline railroad. Bauer considered it. But he would have to build more loading docks. And the town would have to tolerate trucks moving up and down Main Street. Not to mention cutting seriously into Forward Rail’s business.

 Both Bauer and the head of Forward Rail had also approached the town’s mayor several times to pursue eminent domain for Betty’s house. The mayor always backed down. Too harsh a solution, he said.

What the mayor did not say, not out loud – the town could not afford to offend Betty. For over thirty years, with her nursing background, Betty had run a free clinic for new mothers out of the church meeting room. Every Monday and Thursday morning she sat in the clinic, offering help and advice to the new and older mothers of the town. Rashes, scrapes and bruises, coughs, fevers – Betty got the moms through it all. Anything more serious, of course, had to be referred to the county hospital. After all, Betty was a nurse but no doctor. 

So Forward Rail added an extra boxcar when needed to accommodate added product shipments. Not ideal, but workable. An impasse, but not a nasty one. All the factory workers and railway people still greeted Betty in a friendly fashion on the street and in the market.

Each Christmas Betty’s two sons and their families showed up to celebrate the holiday. The grandkids were fascinated by the huge train passing within inches of grandma’s house. They loved waving to Benny the engineer. Betty kept a jar of pennies in the house, and her two sons showed the children how to place the pennies on the rail before the train passed. The huge train wheels flattened the pennies, which delighted the kids.

Betty lost her Charley almost nine years ago. A tragic disappearance. Charley left home one evening to go fishing and never returned. He was never found. After seven years the courts declared Charley dead and Betty collected five thousand dollars on his life insurance policy.

Charley’s disappearance and assumed death had upset the town. There was a large turnout at his church service. More casseroles than Betty could eat in her lifetime. And Betty had soldiered on. Every morning, on all but the bitterest winter days, Betty sat on her front porch. Her failing eyesight would not allow her to create the beautiful quilts she once made. Now it was mostly knitting. Easier on the eyes.

Nine years ago, Charley and Betty had driven to a hospital two counties over. Looking for anonymity. Within two days Charley got his diagnosis. Terminal cancer. Less than a year to live.

Back home, Charley had spent all his free time for the following weeks digging a four-foot deep grave in their basement. The basement was windowless, dark, dank, not much more than a tornado shelter.

After he completed his task, he and Betty made plans. When he began to have trouble functioning, when the pain grew intolerable, they would initiate his last days. Betty acquired a strong sedative and a lethal injection.

Charley ordered a body bag online. On his final day, he gathered his fishing gear and set out one evening to spend the night fishing. He left his gear at the river’s edge and quietly sneaked back home in the middle of the night. He and Betty descended to the basement. Charley pulled the body bag over himself, leaving enough room for Betty to do what she had to do. 

They kissed, held hands. After a while Charley simply nodded. Betty applied the sedative, waited for Charley to doze. Then she administered the lethal dose. She slipped the syringe into the body bag, zipped it up, and rolled Charley’s body into the grave. She spent an hour shoveling dirt back into the hole. She smoothed it over as best she could, dragged a sheet of plywood over the loose dirt, and laid an old rug over the plywood. She stomped down on the rug to flatten the soil.

A tear rolled down her cheek as she mounted the stairs.

A day later Betty reported Charley missing.

Now, nine years later, Betty will never move from her home. And her Charley.

***

shortfiction24 – i’m glad he’s gone

Donna Sykes tells the priest presiding at her teen son’s service, “I’m glad he’s gone.”

A boy’s love of his car brings a dark cloud over the people in his life.

Enjoy the story.

I’m Glad He’s Gone

Bob Gillen

The gray-haired priest stood in front of the closed casket in the crowded funeral home.

“Hail Mary, full of grace…”

The mourners picked up the prayer. “The Lord is with thee…”

Donna Sykes sat alone in the front row. She wore a gray business suit. A dark shade, just short of black. Her lips moved to the prayer, but no sound came out of her mouth. No tears were visible.

The priest finished the prayers, made the sign of the cross over the casket, took off his purple stole, and turned to the woman.

“I’m sorry for your loss, Mrs. Sykes.”

“Thank you.”

“The Lord will help you find strength to get through this. Losing a son, a teen son on the cusp of life,  is a deep tragedy.”

Donna grimaced. “You know something, Father? I’m glad he’s gone. I had no control over him any more.”

The priest took a step back.  Blinked away his surprise.    

Donna turned away from him. Several mourners stepped forward to speak with her.

The priest nodded to some of the mourners as he headed for the exit.

Two teen girls, one on crutches, entered the back of the room. They both wore black dresses. The one on crutches had a navy blue paisley bandanna over her head, partially covering several gauze bandages and tape. They sat down in the back row.

“Donna, I’m so sorry. You must be going through hell.” A woman in black, a small black veil over her head, rosary beads wrapped tightly around one hand, took Donna’s hand. A few tears rolled down her cheek. Donna whispered, “Thank you.”

“And that flower display,” the woman pointed to an enormous spray of flowers near the head of the casket, “it’s so beautiful.”

“My company sent it,” Donna said.

The woman then moved around Donna and knelt in front of the casket. She crossed herself and mumbled a prayer.

After the mourners had greeted Donna and moved back to their seats, the girl in the back rose, hoisted herself on her crutches, and hobbled up to the front row. All eyes in the room followed her. Someone whispered, “She’s the one who was with him…in the car.”

The girl looked to Donna Sykes. No words came out of her mouth. She simply stared at Donna.

Donna patted the chair next to her. The girl sat down, her crutches stretched out in front of her.

“How are you feeling, Rosemary?” Donna asked.

Tears welled up in the girl’s eyes. “Okay, I guess. Doctors say my leg will be healed in a month or so.”

Donna looked over her shoulder, said in a low voice, “I just told the priest I was glad he was gone…I couldn’t control him any more.”

Rosemary drew back. “Did you really mean that?”

“In a way, yes. I had no influence on him at all. He did whatever he wanted to.”

Rosemary sat silent. 

“That car,” Donna continued in a low voice. “He worked his ass off to buy the car and pay for the insurance. I wanted him to save his money for college.”

“He loved the car,” Rosemary said. “It was his whole world… I think he loved it more than he loved me.”

“And me. Yeah, I get that.”

Donna took Rosemary’s hand.  “How did the accident happen? The police told me nothing.”

Rosemary said, “We were down on Shore Road. Just cruising. A guy in a GTO pulled up next to us at a red light. He revved his engine. Jesse did the same. When the light turned green we both took off. A car backed out of a driveway. Jessie swerved to avoid the car and slammed into a tree.”

Donna said, “It’s a miracle you survived.”

“I put my hand on his arm just before we took off, to keep him from racing. He shrugged me off. It was the last thing he did. I didn’t know he was gone till I woke up in the hospital.”

Rosemary hesitated. “He loved you. He was so proud of buying his car. He wanted to take you for a drive. He said you were never around.”

Donna nodded. “I was entertaining clients almost every night. Selling ad space is a tough business.”

A tear finally worked its way down Donna’s cheek. “For me that car stood in the way of Jesse’s future. He wouldn’t talk about college at all. Shut me down every time I brought it up.”

Donna wept openly now. She gripped Rosemary’s hand. “I’m alone now…and I will miss him.”

Rosemary reached her arm around Donna’s shoulder. “For what it’s worth…I’m here.”

Donna dug a tissue out of her purse and wiped her eyes. “It’s worth a lot..”

***

shortfiction24 – what a stupid thing to say

Frank was enjoying a book and a coffee when a kid’s overheard comment sent him spiraling down a regrettable memory. The stupid words we can’t take back.

Enjoy the story.

What a Stupid Thing to Say

Bob Gillen

On an October afternoon, Frank Meek sat at a table on his local Starbucks patio, re-reading Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and sipping an Americano. Retirement could not be better. 

At the edge of the patio, cars lined up at the drive-through window. The squawk box voice echoed across the patio. Hello. What can I get started for you? Kids from the local middle school filled most of the tables, waiting for their parents to pick them up. They were noisy, but it didn’t bother Frank. Life was good.

Four students sat at the table next to Frank’s. Two boys, two girls. Both by appearance and by noise level, Frank placed them as eighth graders. One boy, a tall kid with short brown hair and a long hoodie, stood up abruptly. He hoisted his empty drink cup, said, for all to hear, “Okay, I’m done. We can go now.”

No one at his table moved. After an awkward moment the boy slid back down in his chair.

The boy’s words jolted Frank, woke up a memory he has spent a lifetime hoping to forget. “Okay, I’m done.” Frank’s words exactly, so many years ago. He had never forgotten. It was the stupidest thing he had ever done in a long life filled with stupid moments. Something he regretted to this day.

Frank’s mind chased down his memories. It was the early spring of his eighth grade year. Frank and three of his friends were out one chilly afternoon after school, riding their bikes around the neighborhood. Back then Frank was known to all his schoolmates as Frannie. No one could remember how he got the nickname. One theory was that his teacher, Mrs. Gerard, could not see very well and saw his name as Frances, not Francis, and began calling him Frannie.

The other theory, just as plausibie, was that the teacher confused him with another student. A boy named Francois had moved to the neighborhood the year before. Francois came from Montreal, and of course everyone called him Frenchie. Mrs. Gerard may have mixed up Frenchie and Frannie. Either way, to Frank’s dismay, the nickname Frannie stuck all through the year.

Frannie and his friends left their bikes at the base of a large wooden bridge that spanned the mouth of the town’s wide creek. It was a draw bridge, capable of opening to large cabin cruisers and sailboats that moored in the mile-long creek. But opening only by reservation. There was no budget for a man to stay at the bridge 24/7. You called ahead to be sure an operator could get to the bridge and open it for your boat.

The bridge was strong enough for car traffic, heavy beams and rails, planks that clattered when a car crossed. 

Frannie had climbed up on the support beams under the bridge with his girlfriend Pattie, followed by their friends Ed and Diana. The two couples had sat snuggling in the chill air. They kissed. Warm and wonderful kisses.

And then Frannie pulled away from Pattie, said loudly, “Okay, I’m done. We can go now.”

Frannie did not remember if everyone immediately climbed down off the bridge, or if they ignored him for a while. The only thing he remembers, what is burned into his psyche, is what a stupid thing it was to say. But Frannie was not exactly experienced around girls, not very much in touch with his own emotions.

He could have enjoyed sitting there with Pattie, arm around her shoulder, warming each other in the chill spring air.

But no. He blew the moment.

Frank spent much of his lifetime socially inept, emotionally naive. He could list dozens of things he had done and said over the years that were stupid, regrettable. Things that betrayed his social ineptitude. 

Today, on the Starbucks patio, he turned slightly for a glimpse of the boy who had spoken. Poor kid. I hope he learns sooner than I did.

***

shortfiction24 – she called me bobby mcgee

I let my imagination run for this week’s story. “Me and Bobby McGee” is one of my favorite songs. Lyrics that tell a touching story, a lost love.

I don’t usually write in first person POV. I find it challenging. I hope you enjoy it. And don’t forget you can sign for my weekly newsletter here.

She Called Me Bobby McGee

Bob Gillen

Hey, all. My name is Robert McGee. I am a writer, a husband, a dad to two girls. My wife and I live in Carmel on California’s Central Coast. Our two girls attended Stanford and now work in high tech in the Bay Area.

Oh, and yeah, you may be wondering. Yes, I’m also that Bobby McGee. I hate the name Bobby. She labelled me with it when we met in the summer of ’69. A lot of water under the bridge since then. Let me tell you about it.

I met her in West Virginia. We were both aimless. Searching. Ready for something. Anything. She was hell bent on going to Woodstock that summer. I talked her out of it. Thousands of people just like us, I told her.  Who needs that? We need to see something new. Move. Grow.

I had read Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley. I got the travel bug. I wanted to do what he did. Drive cross country, meeting different people, seeing things I had never seen before. My dream was to get to the Pacific Ocean. I grew up in Appalachia. Never got near an ocean. 

She gave in after a lot of arguing. Cars, buses, trains were beyond our budget. We hitched a ride on a big rig heading west. We grabbed rides from any trucker who would take us. It took a while. Trucks go where the work is. Not necessarily where we wanted to go. 

It took us over two weeks to get to California. Kentucky, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico. I have to tell you, she was a kick. She sang and played the harmonica every minute she wasn’t sleeping. The drivers welcomed the music. It kept them entertained on the long trips without having to engage in conversations. 

The first three days of our trip we cruised through a slate-gray rain. Finally saw sunshine somewhere in Arkansas. I spent a lot of hours looking out at the passing scenery. We moved from forests and piney woods through arid grassland to desert and finally tall palms. 

Somewhere in Texas we got to a huge truck stop. She and I got work washing dishes and clearing tables for a few days. Long enough to put a few bucks in our pockets. Long enough to find a shower. By the time we reached California we had been wearing the same clothes for the entire trip, with only the one shower. Man, were we ripe. But the truckers didn’t mind. Made them feel clean, compared to us. 

She sang and she slept. She would lean her head on my shoulder and be asleep instantly. Those were good moments. The most intimate we got on the trip. We were always with a trucker in his cab, or always looking for our next ride. No chance for anything more.

We hit California outside of LA, and then rode north. On the way she and I had decided we would go to San Francisco. Not so much to catch the hippie scene. Mostly to see if we could get some decent jobs. 

We reached the central farmlands. The Salinas Valley. Steinbeck country. Lettuce everywhere. Spinach and tomatoes. Trucks and trains loaded with crates of produce headed for all corners of the US.

We hung out in Salinas for a few days. You know, for all the singing and good times we had driving with the truckers, for all the plans we shared, I think she was lonely. Alone. Before we reached Salinas, she spent her last few dollars on a fifth of bourbon. Passed the bottle to the trucker but he said no. He would lose his job if he got busted for booze. Up until then she and I had only smoked grass. If I think about it now, she had grown up in the country while yearning for the city. For crowds. For density. For excitement.

We parted ways in Salinas. I never said goodbye. We separated for a day to find work. I met a guy who said he knew a guy who ran a diner in Monterey. I hitched a ride there with him. Steinbeck had only died the year before, at his home in Sag Harbor, New York. I could feel his presence, though, in Monterey. I felt like I was walking alongside him. Talking to Ed Ricketts. Seeing the characters from Cannery Row. Lee Chong. Mack, Dora. 

The guy who drove me dropped me at the ocean’s edge. It was glorious. I will never forget that day. The smell of salt air. The wind tousling my long ponytail. The sun warm on my face. The sound of sea lions barking from the rocks. I found a sandy beach. Dug my bare feet into the hot sand. Cooled them at the water’s edge. Picked up a shell for the first time.

I felt at home. This was where I wanted to be.  

Up till that moment I had only had the travel urge. Now that I was in Monterey, where Steinbeck did much of his writing, I realized I wanted to write. Funny, because up till then I had done very little with my life. Met relatively few people. Had limited experiences.

And here I was, walking away from a girl I had shared life and dreams with, if only for less than a month. I gave little thought to her after that day. I know the song says she let me drift away. It was more like, I walked away and never looked back.

I did not learn till a few years later than she had died the year following our separation, 1970. A heroine overdose. In New York. The big city she yearned for. I also learned that she had written that song about us. “Me and Bobby McGee.” The song was a big hit for her, but only after she was dead.

I don’t know how she ended up back on the east coast. I left her in the middle of nowhere. Ranches and farms. Beautiful country, but hard for a stranger. 

I wasn’t surprised she had performed a hit song. All the way across country she sang along with the truck drivers. Sang their music. Sang stuff they didn’t know. Played a mean harmonica too. Maybe she was the stereotypical Southern kid growing up playing music on the front porch.

If I had to guess, I’d say she made it to San Francisco from Salinas. Maybe sang backup for groups at the Fillmore West. Got noticed, and someone whisked her back to New York to record. Only a guess.

She’s long gone now. I have no idea if the two of us would have made a life together. Not likely. Too much shit going on in each of our lives to know where we were headed.

In Monterey I got a job washing dishes in a small diner. Found a cheap place to live. I bought pencils and pads, and started writing. Like Ray Bradbury, I wrote dozens of short stories. Sent them off to publishers. After two years of rejections, I got a story in one small publication. Paid me ten dollars. But I was king of the world for months.

Now, over fifty years later, I live in Carmel, near Monterey. I walk the beach barefoot every morning, rain or shine. I have twenty-eight novels to my name, mostly mysteries, all with reputable publishers. I go by Robert McGee now. No one calls me Bobby. Few connect me with the song. With her.

There’s one story I have never written. Her story. Where she came from. Where she went when I left her. How she ended up dead. 

Others have put her story to words. I haven’t read any of it. 

But, I have to tell you, I have never forgotten her.

***

shortfiction24 – the man in the door

I wrote this story over ten years ago. It has sat idle on Amazon Kindle for years. I pulled it off there so I could post it here.

A young boy, Robbie Santangelo, wants to write a story that will land him a place on the school newspaper. The traveling Vietnam Wall is in town. But Robbie hits a stone wall trying to talk to his grandfather about the Vietnam War.

It’s a long story. I thought to divide it into episodes, but I think some of the emotion would be lost breaking it up. Enjoy it!

The Man in the Door

Bob Gillen

The Wall

Robbie Santangelo rode his bike through the cemetery gate and up the drive that circled the grounds. The bike’s loose front fender rattled, and he put his left hand on it to stop the noise. This was a cemetery. 

He had never been inside a cemetery before. This one was nothing like the dark, gloomy horror movie scenes, with figures hiding behind scarred gravestones, owls hooting in the swirling mist. A September afternoon in southern California. Hot and dry, the sun glaring down on the almost treeless cemetery. No wind. Quiet.

Old gravestones lined the grassy front of the cemetery. A bit farther in, open grass and a few trees. Pretty empty, Robbie thought. He looked more closely and found that the grave markers were all at grass level. The dead fill the cemetery, but no one has to be reminded until they’re up close.

Robbie spotted a woman sitting in the grass, not too far in from the road, fussing with a small arrangement of flowers. A little boy stood next to her, spinning a couple of pinwheels stuck in the dirt.

At the top of the road stood a long array of granite panels, with American flags flying behind them. The Vietnam Memorial Moving Wall, a traveling replica of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. 

Along the drive sat a dozen cars and several motorcycles. A rental van disgorged folding chairs. Men sweated at setting up the chairs in the open sun. A small stage, a podium, and a sound system faced the chairs. A technician ran a sound check. Check one, check two, check, check, check. Robbie guessed there would be a ceremony later.

Tossing his bike down in the grass near the road, he grabbed his backpack, which held a camera and a small notebook. Off to the side sat several tents where a visitor could get information about the wall. 

Next to the tents, a simple display. A rifle stuck bayonet-first into the earth, a helmet resting on the butt of the gun, a pair of combat boots in front of the gun. The symbol of the fallen soldier. Seven flags, including the American flag and the black MIA (missing in action) flag, stood behind the gun. Robbie knelt in the grass and took an eye-level picture with his digital camera. 

I’ll show the picture to my grandfather when I get home, he thought. Maybe it will get him talking about Joe, Robbie’s great uncle, who died in Vietnam. 

The evening before, Robbie had told his grandfather, Pop, that he had a probationary assignment from the school paper to get a story on the traveling Vietnam Wall. “I can be the only freshman on the paper if I get this story,” he had said. Pop had responded the way he usually did on the topic of the Vietnam War. Slamming his hand down on the table top, he had said, “I don’t talk about Joe or Vietnam.”

Pop’s silence – his actual refusal to talk – drove Robbie nuts. Joe was killed in combat many years ago. A fallen soldier, someone to be honored. But Pop remained mute on the subject.

Robbie remained staring at the gun, the helmet, the boots. He wondered who had shot the gun. Who had worn the boots. Why do adults not talk about what a kid really wants to know? Robbie felt so frustrated. They clam up. They talk around the subject. Ask where babies come from and they’ll talk for an hour, and still not give you a real answer. Just an “age-appropriate” response.

It’s that way with friends too, he thought. His friends made him crazy sometimes. Try to learn more about sports, but no one will tell you what you need to know. If your dad is heavy into sports, you’ll learn all the tricks, all the moves, all the strategies and plays. But if your dad is not much of a sports guy, forget it. No one else will tell you. 

Robbie remembered playing basketball with his friends during summer vacation. He loved the game, but wasn’t especially good at it, and never knew what to do beyond a few basic moves. He always positioned himself in the wrong place on the court. His passes were consistently intercepted. Everywhere he moved, the opposing team had him blocked.

One day he cursed loudly after his pass was stolen and the other team won the game. “You’re telegraphing all your moves,” his friends said. “You always show where you’re going to go.” What the hell did that mean? It made him even more pissed off.

Several cameras snapping brought him back to the moment. Visitors were standing near him talking about the display. He turned away and walked toward the information booth.

A woman volunteer, sitting in front of a computer printout the size of a phone book, offered to help. “Where can I find the name Joseph Santangelo?” She paged through her list, told him the name was on panel 51E. The names were inscribed on the panel in the chronological order of their deaths. Santangelo died April 20, 1968. The volunteer asked if he wanted a piece of paper and a pencil to get a rubbing of the name.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Some visitors like to trace the name of their loved one, to keep as a memento of seeing the wall.”

Robbie hesitated. “Uh, no thanks, I guess.”

He felt odd. At home it was just him and Pop. No hope of talking to someone else to glean some understanding of Pop’s brother Joe. Robbie’s father was gone, dead of a drug overdose six years ago. His mom disappeared right after his father died. No idea where she was now. And at this point he didn’t much care. 

Pop was a good guy. A little tough sometimes, but usually pretty fair. With Robbie just starting high school, Pop was on alert. He had been a high school teacher all his life, until he retired last year. Too many influences, he would say. Watch yourself. Don’t get in with the wrong crowd. But Robbie wasn’t overly concerned with hanging with the popular crowd. 

After Pop retired, except for volunteer work as an usher at the local performing arts center, and occasional visits to the doctor to monitor his heart condition, he was always home when Robbie came in from school. Always had dinner ready, even if it was just leftover pizza.

He walked up to the wall. Panels stretched right and left with thousands of names carved on them. Over fifty thousand. Latest count, according to his earlier research, 58,272. All dead as a result of combat in Vietnam.

A platform ran in front for visitors to walk on. He found panel 51E easily, then the name. No other visitors were nearby. It was still and hot. He waited for something to happen. Joseph Santangelo, the name of his grandfather’s brother, a tragic combat death. This man was family. He expected some feeling to arise. 

Nothing. 

He could hear bees buzzing around a bunch of flowers someone had left at the next panel. He had never known Joseph. His grandfather never talked about him, His father didn’t either. But then, his father was very young when Joseph died.

Robbie watched a visitor a few panels over do a rubbing of one of the names. He stepped back, focused his camera, and took a few pictures of the man. He zoomed in to focus on a close-up of Joseph Santangelo. Then he walked out into the grass and took a few shots of the whole wall.

Now what? I’m supposed to find a story here. 

He approached an older couple standing farther down along the wall. Introducing himself, he asked them what brought them there. The woman explained that they lived in the neighborhood and wanted to see what the wall was all about. No story here, he thought.

Robbie wandered toward the tent covering the stage, hoping to get out of the sun for a few minutes. As soon as he sat on the edge of the stage, he spotted a man standing close to the wall, in front of panel 51E. The man stood tall, maybe six feet, stocky build, a long ponytail peppered with gray hanging down his back. He looked to be in his late 50s, maybe early 60s. Hard to tell from behind.

The man wore faded jeans, polished motorcycle boots, and a long-sleeved plaid shirt. Robbie watched him for a few moments. The man knelt down on one knee, placed something on the platform in front of the wall, got up, and stepped back. Robbie got up and walked slowly to the wall. The object on the platform floor looked like a bottle cap, maybe a beer bottle cap.

Robbie moved closer to the man. He coughed, hoping the man would turn. No luck. “Hi,” he said. The man turned slowly, looked at Robbie, and said, “Hey, kid.”

Robbie pointed at the panel. “That’s my grandfather’s brother’s name there. Joseph Santangelo.” 

The man stood silently for a few minutes. Then, in a voice so soft it surprised Robbie, he said, “You’re related to Joe?”

“You knew him?” Robbie asked, amazed. This could be good, he thought. The man did not answer.

Robbie barreled on. “I never met him, of course, but my grandfather has mentioned him a few times.”

“That’s it? Just mentioned him?”

“Yeah, he never really talks about him.”

The man turned back to face the wall. “Did you put the bottle cap there?” Robbie asked.

“Yep.”

“How come?”

“Just my way of saying thanks.”

Robbie felt like he was on a roll. “I’m doing a story for my school paper on this wall. Can I talk to you for a few minutes?”

“I don’t think so, kid.”

“It would just be for a few minutes,” Robbie said. “I’ve already got background information from Wikipedia. I need to get a few comments.”

“Not from me, kid.”

The man turned away, stepped off the platform, and walked silently through the grass toward the drive. “Wait,” Robbie called out.

When he got to the drive, the man climbed on a yellow Harley, started it up with a low growl, put on a helmet that looked like it was custom painted, and rode off.

So much for a story, he thought. Now what?

Determined

Robbie went to his bike and pedaled off hard. The clattering fender startled a few crows in the grass. They squawked their annoyance. Halfway down the drive, he braked. If I don’t get this story, I won’t get on the school paper. He turned around and rode back to the information booth.

Next to the woman who had helped him sat a man who looked to be in his 60s. Robbie approached him.

“Hi,” the man said. “How can I help you?”

Robbie told him that his great uncle’s name was on the wall. The man nodded. “I have to write a story about the Wall, so I can get on the staff for my school newspaper.”

“A high school paper?” the man asked. “Are you a freshman?”

“Yeah, how did you know?”

“Just a lucky guess. What have you got so far?”

“Almost nothing. No one will talk about it.” Robbie waved his hands in the air. “My grandfather won’t talk about his own brother. And I just met a man there at the wall who knew my great uncle.”

“That’s a real connection,” the man commented.

“Not really. He wouldn’t talk about him. He left me hanging.”

The man nodded.

“I don’t get it. Why won’t anyone talk about it?”

“Come over here and sit down for a minute,” the man said. “Tell me what you know about the war in Vietnam.”

Robbie sat down hard on a squeaky metal folding chair. “I went online and looked up the dates, some of the geography of the country. I read about how hard the fighting was.”

“Do you have any idea how hard it was?”

“I read that it was hot and humid, muddy, lots of jungle fighting, bombing with napalm.”

“What’s your name?” the man asked.

“Robbie.”

“Okay, Robbie, first, my name is Manny. Second, here’s what you do. Forget about the online info you got.”

“I don’t get it. That’s all I’ve got so far.”

“If you want a story, you need to get personal.”

Robbie felt confused. “My grandfather won’t talk about his own brother. And I just met a man who knew him… and he walked away from me.”

“It takes patience. Every man has his own pain.”

Robbie looked at Manny. “What pain?”

Manny looked down.

“Were you there?” he asked.

“Yes, I was. Near the end of the war.”

“Will you talk about it?”

“There’s not much to talk about. I was based in Saigon. I never went in country. But I saw the men when they came out.”

Robbie leaned forward in his chair. “What do you mean?”

“I worked at the airbase. I helped the wounded and the men whose tours were over get on a flight home.”

“Did you talk to any of them?”

“There was no talking to them. Each of them had lived through his own hell. They were set on going home… And they were also feeling badly about leaving their buddies there. The ones who weren’t killed or wounded.”

Voices in the background made Manny look up. A line was forming at the other information table. “I gotta go, Robbie. If you want a story, you come back tomorrow with a few well-thought-out questions, and try to talk to some of the visitors. I’ll help you if I can.”

“Okay.”

He got up and walked to his bike. I don’t get it, he thought. I just need a story.

Panic

Pop’s car sat in the driveway. He’s home early, Robbie thought. Maybe I can talk to him about what happened this afternoon. 

Robbie shoved his bike against the wall in the garage, ran in the back door to the house, and called out to Pop. Silence. He’s probably napping. 

Robbie darted to the stairs. He heard a thump. Turning toward the living room, he noticed Pop’s feet sticking out from in front of the couch. Robbie ran over. Pop lay on the floor, his breathing raspy, face ashen, eyes closed.

Oh, crap!

“Pop, what’s the matter?” Robbie yelled.

Pop opened his eyes, looked at Robbie, but was unable to speak. A gagging noise came from his throat.

Robbie pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, dialed 911, and shouted at the operator that his grandfather had collapsed. After taking the address, the operator asked Robbie to describe Pop’s condition. 

“Is he breathing?” 

Robbie leaned in to listen for a breath. “I think so.” 

She then said, “You need to start chest compressions.”

“Compressions? He needs an ambulance.”

The operator told him to calm down. She instructed him to put his cell phone on speaker, and keep talking to her until the paramedics arrived. 

Robbie screamed, “What do I do?”

She told him. He placed his hands on Pop’s chest and started pressing down. The operator called out the rhythm and pace while he pushed. Pop did not open his eyes at all. His color was turning from white to blue.

Robbie tired quickly. “How long do I do this?” he yelled in the direction of the phone.

“Till the paramedics arrive. Keep going.”

Robbie started to cry. “Come on”, he said. “Don’t die, Pop. Please.”

A siren screamed in the distance.

The Hospital

The following morning Robbie sat slumped in a plastic chair in the hospital’s ICU waiting room. His eyes burned from lack of sleep. His mouth felt fuzzy and dry, no, actually felt nasty. It occurred to him to call school, but he had no mind for that right now. A nurse approached him so silently she startled him. “Your grandfather is conscious. Do you want to come in for a moment to see him?”

Robbie jumped up. He followed the nurse down the hall and into the intensive care unit. With all the tubes and wires stuck into him, Pop looked like a deflated puppet waiting for someone to start moving his arms and legs.

“Mr. Santangelo, your grandson is here,” the nurse said softly.

Pop opened his eyes. Looking over at Robbie seemed to cause him a great deal of pain. “Robbie.” 

“I’m here, Pop.”

“And I’m here too… thanks to you.”

Robbie stared. “Huh?”

“You saved my life. You had my back.”

Robbie shrugged. “Anybody would have done the same,” Robbie said.

“Not anybody. Only a buddy. Thanks.”

“You better let him rest now,” the nurse said. 

Pop was already asleep.

“It was close, but he seems to be making progress,” the nurse said. She looked at him closely, saw how disheveled he looked.

“Do you have anyone to take you home?”

“I’ll be okay,” Robbie said. 

Alone

Robbie took a bus home. It was still only mid-morning, and the street was quiet. He ran from the bus stop, hoping no one would think he was ditching school. Just as he got to his front door, his neighbor called out to him.

“Robbie?”

“Hi, Mrs. Riley.” Robbie had one hand on the doorknob.

“How’s Charlie?”

“Okay, I guess.”

“Is he stable?”

“I think… he’s mostly sleeping. He’s got tubes coming out of him everywhere.”

“Don’t you worry,” she said. “I’ve seen this before. It looks scary, but there’s usually a full recovery.”

“Okay.”

“Have you eaten anything?”

“I had pizza in the hospital cafeteria last night.”

“Later I’ll make you a tray of lasagna. That will get you through three or four days.”

“Okay, thanks.”

“Get some rest now. If you need a ride tomorrow, let me know. I’ll be up early.”

Robbie went into the house. Totally silent. Empty. Weird.

Forget about calling school, he thought. I have to sleep, then go see Pop again later today, then come back to finish my story. He figured he’d never get to sleep, so he spent time researching the Vietnam Wall. The tapping on the keyboard came as a familiar, reassuring sound. 

On one site he discovered that Joseph Santangelo died under enemy fire on a helicopter in the jungle. The incident occurred in Quang Nam Province. 

He searched for information on the use of helicopters in the war. He also found photos taken by journalists following the war. Some of the pictures depicted a gruesome experience. Burned out terrain, haunted faces, men holding their dead comrades.

Sometime after noon, he dozed off for a while.

He woke up scared. Alone in the house. Pop was not coming home tonight. What will I do if he never comes home?

He washed up, then waited until after school dismissal time before heading back to the cemetery. Crossing the yard on his way out, he asked Mrs. Riley to call school and explain why he would not be there for a day or so. This time he left his bike and took the bus, so he could go on to the hospital from there. 

He hustled up to the information booth, requested a piece of paper and a pencil, and returned to panel 51E. After he scratched a rubbing of Joseph Santangelo’s name, he walked along the wall looking for people he could interview.

One woman agreed to talk. Robbie made notes while she talked about her father, who died in combat in 1970. She was there to pay her respects, and to thank him silently for his service and sacrifice. Robbie thanked her and moved on. He took photos of some of the flowers and stuffed animals visitors had left along the panels.

While he was working his way back to his great uncle’s panel, he heard the rumble of a motorcycle. The man from yesterday had returned.

Robbie watched the man walk up to the panel. As he stood unmoving, Robbie took a few pictures of the man, trying not to be seen.

After about ten minutes, Robbie stepped up quietly next to the man, and said, “Hi.”

The man turned, looked at Robbie, and said, “Hey kid. You came back.”

“Yeah, I did.” He showed the man his paper rubbing. “I did this.”

The man simply nodded.

“Last night I learned that Joseph died while working on a helicopter crew in Quang Nam Province.”

The man looked hard at Robbie. His eyes seemed to glaze over, as though he wasn’t seeing Robbie at all, but rather something else far away.

“Did you fly the helicopters?” Robbie asked.

The man took a few moments to answer. “No.”

“Can you tell me about Joe?”

For what seemed like hours, the man stood in silence, staring at the wall. Then he said, “You writing a story about this?”

“I’m trying to.”

“You impress me, kid, coming back two days.”

“I need a good story so I can get on the school paper,” Robbie said, “but I really want to know about Joe. You seem to be the only one who can help me with that.”

“I appreciate what you’re saying, kid, but this was personal.”

Robbie stood facing the wall. Tears suddenly welled up in his eyes. He was annoyed with himself. I can’t cry in front of this guy.

The man looked at Robbie. “What’s the matter, kid?”

“My grandfather had a heart attack last night. He’s in the hospital.”

“I’m sorry, kid. This is Joe’s brother, right?”

“Yeah. His name is Charlie.”

“Your folks must be pretty upset too, huh?”

“I live alone with my grandfather,” Robbie said. “My father is dead, and my mom is gone.”

“Who’s looking out for you, with him in the hospital?”

“My neighbor is bringing food over tonight.”

“That’s it? How are you getting around? Did you talk to your school?”

“I’m okay, I guess. My neighbor called school. I’ll go back in a day or so.”

“You got money?”

“I’ve got a few dollars with me.”

“Where’s your bike?” The man looked around the cemetery.

“I took a bus today. I’m going back to the hospital from here.”

“Are you finished here?”

“If you won’t talk about Joe, then yeah, I’m finished.”

The man ignored the dig.

“C’mon, I’ll take you to the hospital.”

Robbie took a step back. Who is this man?

“Kid, I’m not a weirdo. You need help. You’re Joe’s family.”

They walked over to the yellow Harley. The man pulled his helmet on. An eagle glowered on the side of the helmet. Blue streaks and white stars blazed across the top. Red, white and blue stripes ran through the eagle’s eye. He pulled a second helmet out of a saddlebag. It seemed like more of a tin cup than a helmet. “Put this on.”

The man started the bike, helped Robbie get on behind him, and wheeled off. “Where to?” the man shouted.

Robbie directed him to the hospital, and in 15 minutes they were in the parking lot. Robbie dismounted, his legs still trembling from the ride. As he took off his helmet, a wave of perfume filled the air. He sniffed at the helmet. “Ew.”

“Sorry kid. The last one who wore that was my ex-girlfriend.”

“I smell awful.”

“You’ll air out. Let’s go see Charlie.”

Motorcycle Guy and Charlie

The nurse from the previous night was on duty again. “Hi, Robbie. Your grandfather is doing better today. Much more alert.”

“That’s good. Can I see him?”

“What’s that smell?” she said, sniffing the air. “That’s a nice fragrance.”

Robbie turned red. “I wore his girlfriend’s motorcycle helmet,” he said, pointing at the man next to him.

“Ex-girlfriend,” the man said.

“Are you family?” she asked the man.

“My grandfather’s brother,” Robbie blurted out. The man looked at him, but before he could speak, the nurse said, “Go on in.”

Pop lay propped up on a few pillows.

“How are you, Pop?”

Charlie looked past Robbie. “Who are you?”

“He rode me over here from the Vietnam Wall just now.”

Charlie continued to stare at the man. “Who are you?”

“My name is Bill. Bill Austin. I spoke to Robbie at the Vietnam Wall yesterday, and we met up again today.”

“What are you doing with my grandson?” Charlie asked.

“We discovered that we have someone in common,” Bill said. “Joe Santangelo.”

Charlie closed his eyes. The nurse stepped back into the room. “You better let him rest now.”

Robbie and Bill stepped outside the room and waited for the nurse.

“What’s his condition?” Bill asked her.

“He was upgraded this morning. He’s basically okay, just needs a lot of rest and some new medications.”

“How long will he be here?” Robbie asked.

“I’m not the doctor, but I’d say a few more days at most. He’s improved a lot since yesterday. The paramedics got him here just in time.” She looked at Robbie. “Thanks to you, young man.”

Robbie reddened. Getting to be my new color, he thought.

The nurse walked away. Bill turned to Robbie. “What did you do for him?”

Robbie explained what happened the day before.

“Good for you, buddy,” Bill said.

Robbie hesitated. 

“Wait, why are you calling me buddy now? What happened to kid?”

“You’re a man now,” Bill said. “You had your grandfather’s back.”

“That’s what he said last night.”

“It’s true, buddy. Now, let’s get some food in you.”

Dinner

The yellow Harley rolled into Robbie’s driveway. Mrs. Riley flew out her door with a tray of lasagna balanced in one hand, a salad bowl in the other.

“Hi, Robbie,” she chirped. 

She looked at Bill, looked at the motorcycle, looked back at Bill. 

“Thanks, Mrs. Riley.” 

Robbie took the food from her. She continued to look at Bill.

“Oh, this is my friend Bill.”

“Pleased,” she said. When no more explanation was offered, she turned and walked back to her door.

Inside, Robbie got out plates and utensils. Bill hit the fridge, but found only water and one soda can. He took out a water bottle for each of them.

“Do you drink coffee?” he asked Robbie.

“Not much, but Pop keeps it over there on the counter.” Bill found the coffee and the coffeemaker.

“You need to get back to school tomorrow,” Bill said. “What time can I pick you up?”

“I’ll be okay,” Robbie said.

“What time, buddy?”

“Seven thirty… on one condition. Wash that helmet.”

Bill smiled. “Done.”

They dove into the lasagna. “Leave the salad for another time,” Robbie said. 

The leftovers went into the fridge.

“Do you need money?” Bill asked.

“I think I’m good.”

“See you in the morning. Thanks for the meal.”

Robbie watched Bill ride off. As he closed the door, he caught a glimpse of Mrs. Riley looking out her window.

School Drop-off

Robbie came out his front door to find Bill sitting on his Harley. 

“Morning, buddy.”

“Morning.” Robbie sniffed at the helmet. No fragrance. “Thanks.”

“Okay, where to?”

The yellow Harley rumbled and snarled along in the school drop-off line. Heads turned. Robbie felt himself start to redden, then thought, hey, this is cool.

“Nice ride,” one of the girls in his class called out. 

“This could become awesome very quickly,” he said to Bill.

“Don’t get used to it, buddy. I’ll be here after school to take you back to the hospital.”

To heighten the effect, Bill deliberately revved the engine and pulled out with a roar.

Back at the Hospital

When Robbie and Bill approached Charlie’s room, the nurse caught up with them. “Dr. Arube is in there with your grandfather. He’ll be finished in a moment.”

“Is he okay?”

“More than okay. Talk to the doctor when he comes out.”

Dr. Arube shook Robbie’s hand a moment later. “Your grandfather is doing very well. Much of that he owes to you. Your prompt action and your chest compressions saved him.” 

Robbie was so used to turning red that he wasn’t even aware of it this time.

“I hope to release him tomorrow. Can you arrange to get him home?”

Bill spoke up, “We’ll get him home. Just tell us when.”

“He’ll sleep quite a bit when he gets home. That’s normal. And he’ll be weak for a while.”

“No worries,” Bill said, before Robbie could ask, how will I do this?

Homecoming

At mid-morning the next day a plain-vanilla sedan pulled to the curb in front of Robbie’s house. Bill slid out of the driver’s seat.

“Where’s the Harley?” Robbie asked.

“Think about what you just asked me, buddy.”

Robbie blinked. “Oh yeah, we need to bring Pop home.”

“Get in.”

At the hospital, a nurse’s aide brought Pop down to the front door in a wheelchair. Robbie and Bill helped him into the back seat. Pop gripped a bag full of medications and prescription slips.

Robbie asked Pop how he was feeling while they drove off. Then it was silence the rest of the way home. 

At the house they helped Pop get settled on the couch.

“Do you want me to set up your bed down here for a while?” Bill asked. “Until you’re strong enough for the stairs.”

“Not a bad idea,” Pop said. “Robbie, show Bill where the tools are in the garage.”

An hour later, after a good deal of clanging and a few strong words, Bill and Robbie had Pop’s bed set up in one corner of the living room. One chair went into the garage to clear enough space.

Pop fell asleep as soon as he hit the bed. Robbie asked Bill if he was hungry.

“Sure, let’s polish off that lasagna.”

“What about Pop? Won’t he be hungry?”

“He’ll need to eat light for a while. I’ll go out to the market later and lay in some food for him.”

They ate without speaking. Forks clinked against plates. The last bite was barely down when Robbie felt panic clawing up from his gut into his throat.

“Bill?”

“Yeah, buddy?”

“How am I going to do this? It’s just me.”

“You’ll be fine. One day at a time.”

“I have to be in school every day. What if he needs something? What if…”

Robbie shoved his chair back to stand up.

“He’s got his meds. He’ll get his strength back pretty quickly, I’m guessing.”

“I can’t lose him. I’ve already lost my mom and dad.”

“I know you’re scared. It’s okay. You can still do what you need to do… And you have a good neighbor next door. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. She can check in on him when you’re out.”

“He won’t like that.”

“It’s not forever… Do you know anything about his medical coverage?”

“Nothing.”

“When he’s awake, I’ll ask him. Maybe they’ll cover having a nurse come in a few hours a day.”

Robbie stacked their plates and put them in the sink. “Thank you.”

“No problem, buddy. Glad to help. I’ll come back tomorrow morning to see how you’re doing.”

The Man in the Door

The next morning Robbie stayed home from school. Mrs. Riley came over with soup and a dozen cupcakes.

As soon as Bill showed up, she scooted off to her own house. Charlie got up and sat at the kitchen table.

“That soup looks good. It’s still hot. How about dishing some up for me?” he asked Robbie.

Bill had brought fast-food breakfast for himself and Robbie. They ate quietly, occasionally glancing over at Pop to be sure he was okay.

“You can stop looking at me,” Pop said. “I’m okay.”

“After you eat, I can help you go over your medical plan if you want. Maybe we can get someone in here to check on you until you’re stronger.”

“I should be okay, Bill, thanks.”

“I’m thinking of your buddy here. He’ll be worried when he’s out at school.”

Pop looked at Robbie. “That right?”

“Yeah… I can’t go through this again.” His eyes burned, but he fought hard to hold back tears.

“Okay.”

Bill cleared off the dishes.

“Bill,” Pop said, “I owe you a huge thank-you. Why you’re doing this eludes me, though.”

“Let’s just say it’s for Joe.”

Robbie interrupted. “Bill knew Joe in Vietnam, but he won’t tell me anything about him… just like you.”

Silence greeted Robbie’s comment. 

Unable to endure the lack of response, Robbie broke in again. “I want to know about Joe. If you die, Pop… if Bill goes away, I’ll never know. I’m part of this family.”

The silence hung so long they could hear Mrs. Riley next door on her phone, hear the gardeners’ leaf blowers down the block. But what Robbie began to sense was the unspoken effort, the struggle, to keep some mighty weight down. Down where it could exist without words.

A long sigh. Bill was the first to speak.

“I owe my life to your brother,” he said, looking directly at Pop. 

“Can I get my notebook if you’re going to talk?” Robbie started to get up.

“No notes.”

“What if I don’t remember what you say?”

“If you listen, you’ll remember.”

Robbie scraped his chair with a screech as he moved closer.

“I was part of an Army unit responsible for patrols in country.”

“What do you mean, in country?”

“It means we fought in the jungles, as opposed to staying on a large base.”

“How long were you there?”

“Eighteen months.”

“Were you wounded?”

“Only a slight shoulder wound from a bullet that grazed me.”

Robbie felt himself sweating profusely. He was more nervous than he was when he had to recite in front of class.

“What can you tell me about Joe?” Pop asked.

“I wouldn’t be talking to you right now if it weren’t for him.” Bill looked down at his hands, picked at a broken fingernail, laced his fingers together.

Robbie said, “He saved your life?”

“He was the man in the door.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was leading a patrol in the jungle, about ten miles away from the base, with twenty five men. Just scouting for enemy supply routes. We got ambushed.”

“What happened?”

“We were skirting the edge of a clearing in the jungle. I could smell trouble. One more minute and I would have called for everyone to drop… the Viet Cong opened fire from across the clearing. Killed half my men right away. Wounded most of the others. I had to call in air support.”

“You mean fighter planes?”

“Yeah. They came quickly and bombed the hell out of the enemy position. Then they sent helicopter gunships to evacuate us.”

“Were you scared?”

“Too angry to be scared. We had been told that area was clear of enemy units. I lost too many men. I had to get them all out.”

“Then what?”

“Three helicopter gunships came in. One landed while the others covered for him. Then the second landed. They took the dead and some of the wounded. As soon as they took off, the third landed.”

“Was that Joe’s helicopter?”

“Yeah. The few men who could still move got two wounded men on board while I hung back to cover them. I was the last to go.”

“Then what?”

“Joe was the man in the door. He covered me while I ran to get in. I tripped on a goddamn stump and fell. When I got up, I took off running again. I watched Joe’s eyes. He was watching my back, looking for enemy in the jungle while I ran.”

Bill stopped. He picked at the broken nail again. Pop reached out to touch his arm. “Go on.”

“I saw his eyes fix on something behind me, off to the right. He pointed his gun and began firing. I heard gunfire behind me. Everyone was screaming for me to run. I dove in the door just as the gunship lifted off.”

Tears sprang up in Pop’s eyes. Robbie had never seen him cry.

“I could hear more gunfire from the jungle over the roar of the gunship. As we banked away, I rolled over. Joe was lying next to me. He took a single bullet to the head.”

“He was dead?” Robbie asked.

Bill nodded. “The bullet caught him just under the edge of his helmet.” His eyes filled with tears. 

“I’ve never told anyone this story before.”

Robbie was smart enough to remain silent. He wanted to touch Bill’s shoulder, but he held back.

Bill flicked a few tears off his cheek. “That’s your story, buddy.”

“My great uncle was a hero,” Robbie said.

“He saved my life… who knows how many other men he saved. I never knew him. But he was the man in the door. He had my back.”

“It must have been awful there,” Robbie said.

“War is god-awful, buddy. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s glory and heroism. It’s nothing but survival, and covering your buddies.”

“I’m sorry about all the men you lost,” Robbie said. 

“Their names are all on the wall too,” Bill said. “But this man died for me, for my men.”

Pop seemed to deflate as Bill finished his story. Robbie looked at him. “Are you all right?”

Pop pushed the soup bowl to the center of the table. “I didn’t want him to go.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was dead set against the war. I went into teaching to avoid the draft after I got out of college.”

Bill looked hard at Pop. 

“What draft?” Robbie asked.

“Our country had a draft back then. When every young man reached eighteen, he had to register for military service. They gave all of us numbers. If your number got called in a lottery at your local draft board, you went… Or you took off for Canada.”

“I don’t get it,” Robbie said.

“College kids and teachers were exempt. They didn’t have to go.”

“You weren’t afraid to go, were you, Pop?”

“I don’t think so. But I hated the war. Hated what this country was doing, wasting men’s lives needlessly in some foreign country.”

“What about Joe?”

“He was two years younger than me. When he got out of school, I argued with him to become a teacher. He wouldn’t do it. We fought for months. Then they called his number.”

“Back then we hated people like you,” Bill said. 

“I know.”

“We fought, died, got wounded… and came home to people spitting on us, calling us baby killers.”

Robbie felt scared. What was going on here?

“For what it’s worth,” Pop said, “I respected the men who fought. I was so sick of watching the news and seeing dead American soldiers. Joe wrote to me. He hated it there, but he felt he had to do it. He wanted to see it through.”

“He did see it through,” Bill said. “He died covering all our backs.”

Pop rubbed at his left shoulder. “Two years after Joe died, I had to go to New York for a teacher conference. While I was there, I heard about an anti-war protest downtown. I walked out on the conference and joined the protest.”

Bill stared at Pop.

“While we were marching, we passed a building under construction. The union guys all came down off the building and started harassing us. Then it got ugly. They began punching and kicking us. My hair was really long back then, and they targeted all us long-hair guys. One worker hit me in the shoulder with his hammer. It took 15 stitches for the paramedics to close it up.” Pop rubbed his shoulder again. “I’ve still got the scar.”

“Not the same as combat,” Bill said.

“I know that… God, I know that.”

Pop got up, a bit shaky. He walked over to a large cabinet in the living room. Opening a drawer, he took something out and brought it to the table.

Robbie looked. An American flag, folded tightly into a triangle, and nestled into a glass-fronted frame.

“I could never bring myself to display this,” Pop said. To Robbie, he said, “This flag covered Joe’s casket.”

He looked at Bill. “I want you to have it.”

Bill fingered the edge of the frame. He put his hand over his heart. “I carry Joe here.” He pushed the frame over toward Robbie. “You take this, buddy.”

Robbie swallowed hard. “Me?”

Pop nodded.

Bill stood. “I need to be getting on.”

“Are you leaving?” Robbie asked.

“It’s time to find another girlfriend, maybe one who won’t leave her perfume all over my helmet.”

Pop looked to Robbie. “I’ll explain later,” Robbie said.

Bill smiled.

“Where do you live?” Robbie asked.

“Wherever I lay my head.”

“I thought you went home every night when you left here.”

“Just a motel room.”

“Will you come back?”

“Who knows, buddy? Check out the wall the next time it’s in the area. Maybe I’ll see you there.”

“Bill,” Pop said. “If Joe had to die, I’m glad it was saving someone like you.” He reached out to shake Bill’s hand.

Bill shook hands, turned and gave a nod to Robbie, and started for the door. As Robbie picked up the framed flag, he heard the yellow Harley roar to life and ride off down the street.

END

« Older posts

© 2024 Bob Gillen

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑