Friday, June 1, 2012

Sleeping with Soldiers

Sleeping With Soldiers
Jenean McBrearty

            Not many mothers name a son Ralph these days. It's not biblical like Jacob or romantic like Zachary. It's a down-home, farm boy from Nebraska kind of name. Maybe it was Mary Connor's way of inoculating her boy against the neighborhood street gangs. It worked. He followed in his father's footsteps.
            "Mary Connor was the finest woman I knew," Father Tuttle said as he and Ralph walked away from the graveside, both of them in uniform. Tuttle in a black suit, starched white collar, and purple stole. Ralph in his dress blues. Tuttle hoped Mary was able to attend his graduation from boot camp so she could see him spit and polished—probably the most squared away Marine on the field. "Where are you headed to now, Ralph?" Tuttle said. They were standing beside the priest's BMW—another black box.
            "Wherever Uncle Sam needs me."
            "She sure was proud of you." Tuttle offered Ralph his hand. "She had a right to be."
            They exchanged a firm handshake. "Thanks for everything. The arrangements, the flowers, the service. I never thought about her dying. Weird that she beat cancer but died of the flu. She had the sacraments?"
            Tuttle was looking down at the clipped cloned grass that surrounded the headstones.  "Oh, yes. You need a lift somewhere?" The Cooper hearse was gone, and Tuttle didn't see another vehicle. 
            "No. No. I'm fine. Think I'll stay awhile."
            "Well, alright. It's a long hike back to town."
            "I'm used to walking, Father."
            Tuttle drove away, slowly of course. He didn't want Ralph to think he was in a hurry even though he was in a hurry. He didn't like funerals any more than he liked crying babies at baptisms or nervous wedding parties, but at least the guest of honor never complained about the weather or the sermon. Something in the rearview mirror caught his eye. He blinked just to make sure he was seeing what he thought he was seeing. He put the car in reverse and backed up....
            It looked like Ralph walking towards a white headstone where three other soldiers stood, all of them, even Ralph, in desert camouflage utility uniforms, black boots, and cammy caps. Tuttle stopped, but by the time he was out of the car, they were halfway up the hill. Or had they disappeared within it? "Ralph?" he called, "Wait....."


            Greely Cottage nestled in an old orchard of apple trees. In Spring, the white blossoms hovered around its thatched roof and made its red door shout "notice me" to the hunters that galloped by on the week-ends; Blackberry Riding Academy was a quarter mile away.
            Mary thought the place looked like an English post-card rather than a rural Virginia farm, and wondered who lived behind the white curtained windows as she passed by every evening on her way home from Chocolat-Cheer Candy Store. She never saw a soul, but the front yard was always mowed, the hedges clipped, and the flowers tended to, as if cared for by ghosts who watered, clipped and weeded at night. She never saw smoke rising from the chimney either,            Mr. Bunch at the General Store told her the place was a hundred years old, and had never been modernized.  "You won't find an electrical appliance anywhere in the house," he told her one freezing November afternoon.
            Mary has stuffed a box of Cheerios and a quart of milk into her basket and was considering the bananas. "How do they keep warm?" she said, noticing Bunch had raised the price to 52 cents a pound from 48 cents.
            "They? Nobody lives there 'cept Fred Connor when he's home on leave—Greely Cottage's is one of them historical sites. Everyone else is dead. I hear his mother was a lively young bride....sad, the way she went so soon after he was born.
            "How did she go?" Mary said, forgetting the bananas. Of course it'd been a woman who'd hung the lace curtains. She'd wanted to hear about the mysterious little house, even if was ancient gossip.
            "Katherine took sick of the influenza epidemic in '19. She come over right before the war and  brought it back from New York, she did, when she met Sean Connor's troop boat. It was the soldiers that brought it here, they said. Could be's said if it wasn't for his Aunt Nicole, Little Freddy wouldn't have turned out the way he did and Sean wouldn't have had any happiness in his life.. and I wouldn't be sellin' apple butter." Bunch went to the jams n' jelly aisle and brought back a jar of Connor's Best Apple Butter Mary'd ignored.
            "Katherine may have been the vivacious one, but Nicole got the brains. Saved the farm with this stuff. Told the bank she'd let it have a percentage of the net if they gave Sean a year's extension on his mortgage. Not the local bank either—that one went belly up in '28. I'm talkin' a New York bank. No market for butter. No market for apples to speak of. Nicole concocted a substitute. Sort'a like Sean was her substitute husband, you might say."


                The Kaiser announced imminent mobilization when Gerhardt was in Potsdam. From the rear of the crowd, he snapped the Kaiser's picture and gave it to Nicole who begged him to take her to Brazil until the war was over.
            "Even if there is a war, it won't last long," Gerhardt told her as they drove to Berlin. She was taking the train to visit her newly married sister in Lubeck. For Gerhardt, a job as a photojournalist and their own impending marriage lay ahead, and nothing dared to ruin their plans, not even a skirmish with the English. 
            "I'll be back in two weeks," Nicole said, and kissed him lightly on the lips. They had said good-bye in earnest in their hotel room at the Astor on Strausstrasse. There was nothing to be said now except the standard warnings to each other to be careful. As if men who go to war aren't careful after they see their first battle.   
            "I'll have a flat rented by then," he promised. He watched her board the train and waved farewell. Though he said he'd see her soon, two weeks turned into four years.
            A thousand days and a thousand pictured later, Gerhardt mustered out of the army, and returned to his family's farm in the Tyrol, half blind from gas and afflicted with an uncontrollable tremor of his left hand—and the dream. "I see it every night–the pit beneath the floor, filled with bodies wrapped like mummies."
            "Shell-shock, Gerhardt," Dr. Henrik told him. "We're not sure how to treat it." Henrik had been a field surgeon and was probably experiencing shock himself, though he blamed his insomnia on indigestion.
            "How do you deal with the memory of slaughter ? How do you will yourself to stop seeing?" Gerhardt wondered aloud. The two were drinking beer on  Dr. Henrik's veranda, looking out on golden meadows and rolling hills that paid homage to towering mountains that surrounded them. 
            "Doctors are trained to think of patients as large biological organisms, not real people with families and friends. It's called professional distance. It helps."  Dr. Henrik was thirty-two but the stress of war had turned his hair gray; bad food and worse weather had made him permanently frail. Gerhardt had chronicled the changes with his omnipresent camera, assigned as he was to aerial reconnaissance.
            "At least I'm not in the trenches," Gerhardt had written to Nicole, but his profession had allowed for little distance. A surprise visit by British artillery had sent the pilots scrambling to the planes to get them airborne, but few could outrun the shells. Gerhardt had, smartly, taken cover near the armory where the gas was stored. He fired a few canisters in the direction of the barrage, but, being untrained, he poisoned himself. Still, he was awarded a medal.
            He carried the round piece of tin around in his pocket, and would, unconsciously, hold it in his hand and massage it with his thumb like rubbing a talisman. "I guess I felt the same way about the people I photographed. They may have be moving about, but as soon as I snapped the shutter, they became mannequins without souls."
            "Yes, yes. It seems cruel, but if you can think of them that way you'll sleep better, believe me, Gerhardt. Nothing's to be gained by ruminating over the dead. Now, tell me more about the dream—as though you were filming it."
            "It begins with two men looking for a place to bury a mummy. They outline a oblong patch on a dirt floor and dig a grave. Instead of burying the thing, they keep enlarging and deepening the grave until it's a huge pit, and as they dig, they keep finding more wrapped corpses—hundreds, then thousands—but they keep digging until finally the mummy they wanted to bury wakes up. He's alive, one of the men says, because he sees the eyes blink. All the mummies come alive then, so the men get out of the pit, pour gasoline over them, and toss their torches in it, burning the mummies."
            Dr. Henrik nodded. "You keep burying the dead, and they won't stay sleep. But you aren't responsible for the war, my friend. As soldiers, we obeyed orders. But everyone obeys—their parents, the law, traffic lights."
            Gerhardt finished his stein, and opened his hand. "I got this medal for lobbing those gas canisters at the British. I'm proud of this medal."
            Henrik stared at the silver circle. "Rightly so."
            "So why does the dream give me the sweats?"
            "Heroism can be tough on the nerves," Dr. Henrik said.
            "It wasn't heroism. I did my duty. Nothing more. Those goddamned Brits. You know they gave Von Richthofen full military honors after they shot him down? It's tough to hate an enemy who remains well-mannered even when he's being squashed."
            Henrik smiled for the first time in years when Gerhardt said that.  "We may yet learn who our real enemies are," he said.
            "You mean the Communists?' Gerhardt said.
            "I mean all our enemies..."
            Before Gerhardt said good-night to Dr. Henrik, they were his enemies too. 
            "No more fighting, Gerhardt, please" Nicole said when he told her of his determination to rid Germany of Dr. Henrik's purported anti-national assailants. 
            "All life is a fight, and Germany is fighting the noblest war of all—the fight to save what's left of our culture." She didn't understand. She was a romantic child. She'd asked him to abandon his duty, renounce his honor, and let others bear the burden of her protection. They'd married, but love was beyond him.
            "I'm tired of war. Am I a bad person for wanting us to salvage our life together? Der Kaiser ist tot, Gerhardt."
            Gerhardt held her close. "No, you're not bad, just weak and foolish. The Kaiser is alive in the Netherlands. It's rumored Prince Frederick has returned, and this man Hitler— people say he can restore the throne of the Hohenzollern. They say he's taken over the German Worker's Party. You'll see, Nicole. Germany will be set right again."
            They talked little more that night. Nicole left at seven the next morning, and hesitantly posted a letter to her brother-in-law, begging for assistance....Germany was hungry. A month later, after Gerhardt finally fell asleep as morning brought another day, Nicole loaded her suitcase into the taxi and trained north to Lubeck and it's ocean liners. Across the Atlantic, were eight million German-Americans—enough to swallow her into anonymity—and a young boy who needed her...   


            "Do something valuable. I'm not saying you'll get rich before you die, but you would have lived well. If there's a beyond, you'll know other folks remember you though you're nothing but dust."
            Fred watched as his father put up his whittlin' knife and wondered if his ol' man had anything to give him besides advice for his high school graduation. If not, if advice was all he could afford, it would have to do. He was lucky to have graduated at all. People were jobless and homeless in '36; most of his friends had quit school to work or set off on the road to make their way. It made it easier on their families.
            But his father was firm. "Before you take to the road, learn something. You won't get paid for misery, but for a skill."
            Fred listened—one of the few boys who did–and told Rootie, the fifteen year old daughter of their nearest neighbor two miles down the road, "I'm tempted to do a lot of things, but being stupid isn't one of them."
            "You want to know what I'm going to do? I'm going to Hollywood," Rootie said.
I'm going to be a movie star. My mama says I'm pretty enough."
            "Every pretty girl wants to be a movie star," Fred said, turning away with a scowl painted on his face. Men might not pay other men for their misery, but they'd pay a girl to look pretty. It didn't seem fair, but it was the truth. With that, he kissed her full on the mouth and tore home before he made a liar out of himself and did something stupid.
            "What would you say was the most valuable thing a man can learn?" Fred said to his father. The ol' man walked to a locked cabinet and returned with a C.96 and a box of bullets. 
            "This is the only valuable thing I have to give you. The farm can feed us, barely, but the bank will be taking it shortly."
            "I can't take your Mauser, Pa...."
            "Yes, you can. The German officer I took it from doesn't care who has it now. You learned how to read, write, and count. You learned how to keep books, shoe a horse, and sail a boat. You're ready to enlist. You might as well get a head start on everybody because there's going to be another war."
            For shy Mary, the trip up the Greely Cottage steps was an emotional gauntlet. Unplanned, she told herself. The two extra boxes of chocolate covered apricot cottlettes were on the "freebie" table near the door, and when she saw the smoke curling from the cottage's chimney, it was a sign today was the day. Ignoring her knotted stomach and palpitating heart, she composed a friendly, I-was-just-passing-by-and- thought-I'd-be-neighborly-to-a-soldier script as she came up the walkway, and struck a confident pose. The worst Fred Connor would say is no thank-you, I'm allergic to chocolate, because he wouldn't be rude to a nineteen year old Catholic girl from Boston.
                Her eyes were cast upwards when the door opened; she wanted look Connor in the eye. "You're Mary," he said. She lowered her line of vision to straight ahead. He was short—with the fiercest green-fire eyes of a Welshman she'd ever seen. They locked on her and tracked her fidgeting like radar.
            "Yes," she said, "from the Chocolate-Cheer...I brought you...these." She held the candy over her face with both hands as though warding off a Cupid's arrow. Too late. The damage was done. That voice, that smile, that angled chin, consumed her, fear and all.
            He took the candy boxes and pretended to read the labeling. "Bunch told me about you. Said I should be wary of an unwitting female predator in the neighborhood. Are you dangerous?"
            "I don't think so," she said. Fred opened the door wider and she could see a half-decorated Christmas tree. Was it that obvious she was looking past him into the living room? "You haven't put the tinsel on yet," she said. "It's not finished, but it's beautiful anyway."
            "You're not finished either," Fred said. "I see you're not wearing a ring. Does this mean you're not engaged?"
            "Yes. I've only been here a year."
            "A single, pretty girl, bearing sweet gifts to a lonely guy...sounds downright life-threatening." 
            Mary felt her face grow warm. "My first job out of high school. Chocolate-Cheer, I mean. My friend, Amy, lives here. I'm going to college next September." Fred had tucked the candy boxes under his arm, and was nodding as though he was interested. "I thought I'd study something wildly fascinating, like archeology or something, but now, I'm leaning towards business. You know, something useful."
             "Do you know anything about hanging tinsel? That's an incredibly useful something. I know quite a lot about machine guns, but tinsel-ing isn't in the training manual. You think maybe I could bribe you with a cup of cocoa to finish the tree?" With both arms, he hugged the candy boxes to his chest like a teddy-bear. "I love chocolate."
            Okay, he was adorable. He probably knew it, probably had tons of women falling into his arms, probably looked even handsomer in his uniform, and was incredibly as kind to old ladies and small animals as he was to her at this moment. God had ordained that some people were to fall in love this way: A man bustling about the kitchen humming Deck the Halls, heating milk in a saucepan on a wood burning stove, and a woman delicately hanging silver aluminum, strand by strand, on the branches of fir tree; a couple admiring each other's accomplishments bundled up before a roaring fire on a December evening, and discussing the pros and cons of simple names for children—like Fred and Mary. The up-side? Easy to spell, easy to remember. The down side? Nobody thinks you're important. Nobody wants to date you. Worse, yet, nobody notices you.
            "If I was in the movies, I'd be the best buddy who gets killed," Fred said.
            "And I'd be the maid who watches the kids while the star has an exciting life," Mary said.
            Fred glanced up at the portraits that presided over the cottage: Sean Connor, flanked by sisters Katherine and Nicole.  "You think the buddy and the maid might live happily ever after if they'd ever meet?"
            "Maybe. It's Hollywood, after all."
            "For soldiers, that happy ever after may not be a long time. We're in war, Mary. It's easy to forget that until it comes time to say good-bye."
            She followed his gaze to the portraits, a thousand questions popping into head like a fire-works burst. They could wait. Just as, in the present moments of life, Death waits. He will intrude, sooner or later. But in this moment in time, he could wait. She could push him out of the way, temporarily. Back. Back. Push him back until there is no more breath or laughter or hope. Until denial was impossible. Nineteen or ninety, only then would she admit defeat.

            Mary held him close to her heart one last time. She caressed his mouth with her fingertips, and let them glide through his freshly-brushed hair. His gold belt and each button was polished, the white gloves immaculate. Had he been able, he would have marched with her down the aisle, held her arm again as she approached the altar rail for communion. He looked as he did when he left her, but his scent had evaporated. When she bent over him, there was no breath upon her neck, no kiss upon her cheek.
            "We must close the lid," a voice said and hands from nowhere pulled her back from the box. Back. Back. Back to this life because it wasn't her time yet. 
      For the second time, she'd come to Arlington's cathedral of corpses, listening to words that only tradition kept comforting, and hearing the twenty-one volleys fired off in salute.
            The Lord is my Commander, I shall not shirk; He maketh me bear want and
            loneliness. He leadeth me into danger. He restoreth my courage. He leadeth me to                         triumph for His name sake. Yea, though I walk in a battlefield, I fear no enemy             because He is with me. His Howitzers and Shermans protect me. He gives me valor
             in the presence of mine enemies. He  anoints my wounds with oil. My blood runneth        over. Surely, liberty and freedom will follow me, and I will praise His name—Justice
            For the second time, she placed a folded flag into wooden case, and set it on her mantel with the other, flanking the two photographs, one her husband, one her son. Denial was impossible. Happily ever after lasted twenty-three years. Memories lasted her lifetime at Greely Cottage where her life had begun. It would, at a date simply specified as "upon the death of Mrs. Connor" revert to the Virginia Historical preservation Society who, it was particularly specified, would preserve the family portraits and pictures including the wedding picture of Mary and Fred, and the Marine Corps graduation of their son, Ralph—hero of Kandahar.   

             Father Tuttle stared at his watch. It'd only been five minutes since he shook hands with Ralph Conner. Where could the men have gone? How far could they have walked? His hallucination, or apparition, if he chose to believe in ghosts, couldn't have lasted through a half hour service. And yet, thinking back, he hadn't seen a car. There'd just been his BMW and the Cooper hearse—the small, golf-cart sized car that delivered urns instead of caskets. Ralph had just been there, as though dropped from the sky, waiting for them.  
            Tuttle walked from the curb to Fred Conner's grave, one of the thousands at Arlington, where he'd scattered Mary's remains over it as her will directed. She was the ashes, Fred the dust.  He knelt by the headstone and read again: Lieutenant Frederick Conner, USMC, b. June 6, 1918—d. June 6, 1944.
            His hand dove into his pocket and yanked out a folded piece of paper. He hadn't known Mary Conner, really. He said he did because that's what he was supposed to say to grieving people he'd never met. He was the finest man I knew. She was the finest woman I knew. Relatives like to hear those sops. Usually, he took the check from the shaking hand of the deceased's loved one, who probably hadn't seen the crone for a decade before the body actually died, bought a box of candles for the altar, and made his car payment. But today.... Today he should have been paying attention... Today, it was dereliction of duty though he didn't know exactly why.  
            Lieutenant Frederick Conner Jr., USMC, b. April 7, 1942— d. February 2, 1968, he read, and checked the small map at the bottom of the page. The Vietnam Veterans were in another section. "Damn it!" Tuttle said, afraid to look up and see Ralph standing above him. Ralph must have known he'd made a mistake. Ralph could have stopped him, told him, you damn fool, you're in the wrong place. Too polite to correct a man of God.
             He ran to his car and brought back the empty urn, wanting to scoop up as much of Mary's remnants as hadn't completely blown away. He certainly wasn't the finest priest she'd ever known—Gerhardt Tuttle, who'd screwed up the funeral of the last of the Connors—but finally the futility of his task weighed him down, and he sank to his knees on the nation's holy ground and watched as the wind spread Mary's ashes over the fields of white stones.  


Author: Jenean McBrearty 

I am a graduate of San Diego State University, and former community college instructor who taught Political Science and Sociology at military installations and Des Moines Area Community College.
Credits: Reviewer —social science/history for Choice Magazine (2006-2008); paid columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader (2006);  EKU English Department's Award for Graduate Non-fiction (2011), published in Teaching for Success, Static Movement, Main Street Rag 2011 Anthology—Altered States, Wherever It Pleases, including the Anthology: Rustlings,  and, bioStories among others.