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Writing Fiction - Chapter 30
Here's where Chapter 29 left you.
“Pearl,” he said in a quiet, solemn voice, “Do you want to hear his story?”
Have you ever had about three emotions run through your mind at once? In that instant, I felt relief, and odd sense of disappointment and curiosity.
I decided to follow the curiosity path and sort the relief and disappointment out later.
“Jay, of course I want to hear his story.”
Jay dropped down to the grass. I wasn’t sure how to get down to the ground gracefully, so I just stood awkwardly. “It’s kind of a long story,” he continued, “You might want to sit down.”
Pretending I was still young and agile, I dropped down on the grass a short distance away. For now, I was just too inquisitive to worry about how I was going to get up later.
I put my hands in my lap and resisted the urge to pressure him to begin.
He remained silent a moment longer, so I closed my eyes and tipped my head back to enjoy the warm sun on my skin. Then he began talking. “I hope you don’t mind listening to this, Pearl.”
And I didn’t.
And now, the story continues with Chapter 30...
“Spot and I were at home that day,” Jay began, “Spot ran away and hid. That should have been my first clue something bad was about to happen. He was always ready to jump all over anyone who came to the door. That had been hard to get used to at first; you know, his barking and crazy antics. And my wife never did get used to it. She’d always get so ticked off when Spot acted like a dog. He’d been living with us for almost a year when the two guys in uniform knocked.”
I tried to settle myself more comfortably on the lawn. Why hadn’t I sat closer to a tombstone so I could have had a little lower back support?
Jay continued, “As soon as I saw them on the other side of the screen door, I had this weird sense of déjà vu. I think that ever since he’d shipped out, I’d been waiting for this …you know, the dreaded knock at the door? Every time I watched the news, I’d tell myself, ‘Those aren’t casualties…those are people…with families…with wives…with dogs named Spot waiting at home for them.’ I just never had a sense my son would be one of … well, ummm… a casualty. And why do they use the term ‘casualty’ anyway? I wonder if there’s some guy sitting in an office at the Pentagon thinking these things up. These, what’s that word? Euphemisms? Euphemisms. Probably so that none of them have to say, “Your son fucking died in a fucking jacked up war?” Oh God, Pearl. I’m sorry. I…”
I used the apology as an excuse to lean forward and pat his arm. My back was totally killing me and now I felt like I was getting a cramp in my calf muscle. “Pearl, concentrate. This is important,” I thought to myself harshly. In a much kinder way, I said, “Don’t worry about it, Jay, I’ve heard that word before.” I smiled gently to encourage him to continue.
“What was I saying? Oh yeah, euphemisms. I think some officer thinks these up…like novocaine for the conscience…and we all hang on to them because it’s too hard to actually say ‘dead’…or ‘died’. Casualty of war sounds so much less raw, doesn’t it?
“After I’d watch the news, I’d pace the floor, or walk around the block with Spot, over and over until I made myself tired enough to go to sleep. Casualties of war. Nobody wanted to talk about it, you know? The only person who’d listen to me was Spot. Well, okay, Spot’s not really a person, but… yeah. Guys I worked with didn’t want to hear about it. They’d get all weirded out. My wife wouldn’t have any part of it. ‘You’re talking crazy again, Jay,’ she’d tell me in disgust, ‘Of course he’s coming back, we have his dog.’
“I keep replaying what happened after that knock at the door. All I remember clearly is, one guy put his hands behind his back, stepped closer to me, and started saying crazy stuff to me…stuff like my son had been killed in action. He wouldn’t look me in the eye. It was weird. Or wait. Maybe he said my son was a casualty of war. I can’t remember. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but whatever it was, it made me angry. He didn’t feel a damned thing when he told me. I wanted to hit him. Then I swear he said, ‘I’m sorry for your lost’, and I couldn’t figure out what he meant. Had they lost my son? Was my son lost? I must have asked that question out loud, because then the second guy stepped forward; he reached out his hand as though he was going to touch me, but he didn’t. He looked right into my eyes and I saw sadness. ‘Your son has been killed in action…we’re sorry for your loss’. I’m sure he said ‘killed in action’. But I think maybe the first guy said ‘casualty of war’.
“Is this making sense? Do you know what I mean? Then, you know, they said some other stuff, but I can’t remember a single word of it. Not a single word that came after ‘we’re sorry for your loss’.
“After they left I didn’t know what to do. I had to tell myself to calm down. I remember wanting to run after them to make them tell my wife. She was at work. Did I tell you that already? Yeah, she was at work. I don’t even remember why I was home that day. Why wasn’t I at work? I wished I’d been at work and then maybe…maybe…well…but my wife was. At work. And the guys had already left and that meant I had to tell her.
“Spot had come out of hiding then and was standing by my leg, just trembling. I couldn’t even tell him. Instead I tried to entice him outside to pee so I could go to my wife’s work. He wouldn’t go. I carried him outside and the whole time he was just shaking so hard.
“It’s weird. I didn’t cry. I waited and waited for Spot to pee and then I went inside and called my wife. I told her I was coming to pick her up and that I’d be there in ten minutes. It was just strange. She didn’t even ask me why. She said, ‘Don’t come. Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.’ I told her ‘ten minutes’ and hung up.
“Before I left to get her, I went upstairs and got one of my son’s shirts out of the guest room closet. When he’d deployed out, he’d asked us to keep Spot for him and he’d brought over three t-shirts. He told me, if Spot got to missing him too much, to let him sleep on one of the t-shirts. I didn’t ever need to. Even though my wife hadn’t wanted Spot with us at the house, the little dog had seemed to settle right in. He never settled in with my wife, though. I think Spot knew she was the one who’d never let us get a dog. Do think Spot knew how she’d always argued that a dog is a lot of work? ‘Who’s going to feed it? Who’s going to clean up after it? Who’s going to take it for walks?’
“I’m disgusted with myself, Pearl. When he was little, I’d never forced the issue. It was easier to let my wife have her way. I watched that boy read books about dogs with a dreamy look on his face. He drew pictures of dogs. He volunteered at the Humane Society. He tried every way he could think of to get his mom to change her mind, but she never would.
“He picked his first apartment from a list of places that allowed pets. I wish you could have seen his face when he brought Spot over to meet us. My wife wouldn’t let Spot in the house, so I sat on the back porch and threw a ball to him. After awhile I got my camera and took about a thousand pictures. My son thought I was taking pictures of Spot, but really I was taking pictures of my son’s face. I was puzzled by the name, ‘Spot’. I mean, there wasn’t a spot on that puppy. ‘Why Spot?’ I’d asked him. ‘Because that’s what I was always going to name a puppy when I was a kid,’ he’d replied. I’d felt sickened with myself. I should have stood up to her…he was so happy with that dog, Pearl! I’ll have to show you those pictures…I wonder where those pictures are?”
Jay drifted off into thought. I drifted off right along with him. Had my husband felt this way? Every time I’d argued against letting the kids get a dog, had he been disgusted with me. At the time my arguments had felt so valid. Really, who was going to feed it, clean up after it, walk it? Me. It would have been me. But would that have been so bad? I leaned forward as I sifted through these memories and rubbed my calf muscle. It still felt suspiciously like it was on the verge of cramping. Jay noticed me rubbing my leg and asked, “Are you okay, Pearl? Should we leave?”
“Sure. I’m okay. I was just thinking…how did your wife take it when you picked her up at work?”
Jay replied harshly. “Ex. Ex-wife. How did she take it? She didn’t take it too well,” and then he went on to explain.
“Before I left to pick her up, I put one of my son’s t-shirts on the couch and let Spot lay on it. It seemed to calm him down a little bit. And then I left to pick up my wife. As soon as I drove up to her office, she came out the front door. I think she was standing there watching for me. She got in the car. I started to tell her, but she stopped me, ‘Don’t! Don’t tell me! I don’t want to know!’ I took her hand and she pulled away. It was weird, Pearl. She was MAD! At me! Like it had been my fault. I tried taking her hand again, but she looked at me and said, ‘Don’t touch me. Don’t! I need to think.’ We drove home in silence.
“One of the military guys had given me an envelope. I’d thrown it on the little table by the door. When we walked inside, she saw the letter right away. Spot came running and she screamed at him, “Get out! Get away from me! I hate you!” She grabbed the letter and ran upstairs. I should have followed her. I know it. I was a rotten husband. I heard her screaming in our bedroom, but I couldn’t go up there. I just sat down on the bottom step and held Spot. I started to cry. I swear Spot started to cry, too. I sat on that stair and cried until I felt sick. Spot wriggled in as close to me as he could. He kept trying to lick my tears. He kept trying to lick my hand. He was trying to comfort me. I could still hear my wife crying upstairs. I didn’t try to comfort her. I couldn’t. I don’t know why. I had Spot comforting me and she didn’t have anybody.”
To be continued, Tuesday, April 12.
(c) 2010 Jennifer R. Matlock
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