by James Merkin
Jesse stared at his phone in disbelief. “Artie! It isn’t noon yet. What are you doing up?”
“I’ve been up for a while. Listen, Jesse, there’s a pickup truck parked across the street from your driveway.”
“It’s free parking all along our street, dufus.”
“There’s somebody sitting in it.”
“How do you know that?”
“I saw a cigarette glow, and some movement. That’s what got my attention when I first looked out. Look for yourself, but be careful.”
“Be careful? Hang on.” Jesse went over to his bedroom window and looked toward the street. He could just see out beyond the garage. Sure enough, there was a red pickup parked across the street. It looked like a big Ford, with dual wheels. It was too far away to be able to make out anyone sitting in it.
“I see it. So what?”
“So I first saw it almost two hours ago. Somebody was sitting in it then; now I just looked again and somebody is still sitting in it.”
“Wait a minute. You got up at eight o’clock? Are you sick?”
“Stomach problems. Judy cooked supper for me last night.”
Jesse snorted. Artie’s girlfriend Judy was a sweet girl, but she was known for her experimentation both in chemistry class and in her mother’s kitchen.
“So what’s the plan, Artie?”
“The plan is, I sneak out and get a photo of the license plate.” Jesse grinned. Artie could find a conspiracy in a weather report. Lurking strangers to him were like a red flag to a bull.
“What good is that? We can’t really go to the cops over somebody sitting in a truck for a couple of hours.”
“No, but if he kidnaps you, I’m perfectly positioned to get the reward.”
“Maybe I’ll just walk over and ask what he wants.”
“That’s crazy talk, Jesse!”
“Well, maybe he’s lost, and waiting for someone so he can ask directions or something.”
“Jesse. You don’t seem to get it. People get abducted all the time. A good looking, known gay guy like you, why you’re prime meat on the hoof.”
Jesse could tell that Artie was worried. “I promise I’ll be careful, Art.”
“I’ve got your back. Try not to look seductive.”
Ten minutes later Jesse stepped out of his back door, cell phone live in his pocket and Artie on the line. “I’m walking now.”
“I’m on it.”
As Jesse walked around his house and down the driveway the truck’s starter whirred and its big engine roared to life. The truck was moving by the time he stepped off his curb, and he caught only a glimpse of a burly driver wearing a camo cap and sunglasses.
The truck rumbled on down the street and Jesse turned to see Artie, behind some bushes on his side of the street, holding up his cell phone. “Got it, Jesse!” He shouted.
“Snapped a picture of his backside with the license plate.”
“Good going, Art. Let’s go in and blow it up on my computer.”
The image, enlarged, was fuzzy and washed out but the license plate was clearly visible. “That’s New Hampshire, Artie. I wonder if it’s someone who Uncle Fred or Uncle Dave knows?”
“Or maybe someone is stalking them and knows they drive down here pretty regularly. Remember, your Uncle Dave is a lawyer. Maybe he’s involved in a case about someone in the mob!” Artie was pacing with excitement.
“What mob? New Hampshire has farmers, not gangsters.” Then Jesse leaned closer to the photo. He studied it intently.
“What do you see?” Artie crowded close to peer at the screen.
Jesse pointed at the image of the truck’s back window. In one corner a faded, almost illegible emblem was barely visible. Under it, equally faint, were the words ‘Semper Fi.’
“Guy’s a Marine.”
“Doesn’t mean he’s a hero, Jes.”
“I’d better call the uncles.”
* * *
“Can’t say it rings any bell with me, Jesse.” Jesse’s Uncle Fred was on the phone and speaking from the couple’s shared offices in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Fred was a psychologist, while his husband Dave was an attorney with a practice in criminal law. “The last person to threaten me was old Moose Alison, poor soul. He’s suffering from dementia and can’t even remember his own name nowadays. Dave’s hit a dry spell and doesn’t have any cases pending, threatening or otherwise, at the moment. Right now he’s knee-deep in shavings while he remodels our kitchen. That’s why I’m hiding out here in the office. He’d probably welcome a stalker to help him lift cabinets.”
“I only saw him that one time, Uncle Fred.” In spite of his uncle’s tone Jesse could tell that he was concerned about the mystery trucker.
“Nonetheless I’ll ask Dave to get someone to run that plate, and I’ll get back to you as soon as we know something. In the meantime, keep your eye peeled and call us if you see the truck again or anything else suspicious.”
“OK, Uncle Fred. Don’t forget we’ve got driving practice this weekend, and the test on Monday."
“I think you’ve reminded me just about every day, Jesse," Fred said dryly.
“See you on Sunday, then. ‘Bye.”
Jesse debated about what to tell Artie. If he told him that the uncles were concerned Artie was liable to transform into full-fledged bodyguard and wingman mode, and Jesse knew what that was like. He loved Artie like a brother but having him around 24/7 could wear anyone out, best bud or not. Thank goodness for Judy. Once Artie got seriously hooked up with his steady girlfriend back in ninth grade Jesse finally had some elbow room and he discovered that, while he wasn’t really a loner, he treasured his time on his own when he wasn’t with Brian or his family. Or at work. Ohmigod! He was going to be late for work! He was going to have to ride his bike. Not being able to drive legally yet really sucked.
* * *
Jesse was shifting the Loeb Classical Library editions to make room for more poetry. He loved his summer job working in the bookstore. It was wonderful to see and handle the books, and to be able to dip into one now and then when the manager wasn’t looking. At the moment Jesse was dusting off an edition of Cicero and as he flipped through the pages, Latin on the one side, English on the other, his eyes were caught by an essay on friendship: ‘...In the face of a true friend a man sees as it were a second self.’ Wow. He and Brian were like that. It was eerie the way they seemed to think alike, in fact they sometimes even said the same words at the same time.
He scanned a few more pages. ‘...What can be more delightful than to have some one to whom you can say everything with the same absolute confidence as to yourself? Is not prosperity robbed of half its value if you have no one to share your joy? On the other hand, misfortunes would be hard to bear if there were not some one to feel them even more acutely than yourself.’
Jesse felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. That was so true. He and Brian shared all their innermost thoughts, all their joys and sorrows. Cicero really seemed to understand about friendship. He had written these words two thousand years ago. Yet the truth about some things, some essential things, didn’t change. Jesse was so glad that he and Brian were friends as well as boyfriends.
Startled, Jesse turned. Busted. It was Frank, Brian’s oldest brother, and the store manager on duty today.
“Jesse, everyone knows that people who work in bookstores can read. You don’t have to demonstrate your prowess.”
“Er, I was just-”
“You were just dusting and shifting, right?”
“Plus checking a few volumes to make sure none of the pages were loose or out of order, right?”
“I’m sure the publisher of those volumes will be very grateful for your concern. But I think you can skip that step from now on, Jesse.”
Frank cleared his throat. “On another topic, Brian is in the back room getting ready for his shift. He still has ten minutes so you might want to take your break now.” He turned away, suppressing a smile.
“Thanks, Frank.” Jesse grinned widely, put the book he was holding back onto the shelf, and got up off his knees. “Oof.” He just loved working in the bookstore.
* * *
Brian was changing into his coffee shop shirt when Jesse walked into the back room. “Hey, Jes,” he said with a smile.
Jesse took a quick look around and stepped over to his boyfriend. He ran his hands over Brian’s smooth, muscular back and, with a quick embrace, leaned in for a kiss. “Hi yourself, Bri.” The two boys grinned at one another as Brian finished hauling the red polo with the coffee shop logo over his head. “I’m on break and Frank said you had a few minutes. Want to go outside?”
“Let’s just sit here. I don’t want to be late relieving Susan and I wanted to show you this.” Brian fished in his locker and handed an envelope to Jesse. “It just came.”
Jesse took the envelope. It was marked 'Boston University College of Communications, 640 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston.’ Inside was a letter welcoming Brian Cleary’s interest in the journalism program at BU and inviting him to come for a visit and a tour.
Jesse knew that Brian wanted to study journalism. His boyfriend was the youngest of the Cleary brothers, while Frank was the oldest and in line to take over the bookstore from Brian’s father and grandfather. Although Brian knew he always had a place at the store if he chose to stay, Jesse knew Brian didn’t want to limit himself to a life in retail. What Jesse couldn’t understand was why Brian wanted to go away to study journalism.
“Brian, BU is a big university, isn’t it?”
“You know it is, Jesse.”
“And they have a really good journalism program, right?”
“Duh. Why else would I want to go there?”
“Well, isn’t UMass a big university with a good journalism program?”
“Jesse, I know where you’re going with this and yes, UMass is big and has a good program. But they are also right here in town and you know as well as I do that if I go to school here I’ll never get out of the house and I’ll never take off this shirt.” Brian tugged at his coffee shop shirt. “Besides, BU is in Boston. Where would you guess there are bigger and better opportunities to learn to how to write news stories, here in Amherst or in Boston?”
“Boston is far away.”
“Jesse, we’ve talked about this. Boston is a couple of hours by car. You’ll be driving next year, and knowing the way you drive, you can probably cut that trip down to about forty-five minutes.”
“Shh, Brian! Don’t talk about how I drive!” Jesse looked around the back room, but he and Brian were still alone. “You know I’m not supposed to be driving with you in your car.”
“Yeah, well, it wasn’t my idea. Who said ‘I have to practice, I have to practice’? If you weren’t my boyfriend I’d tie you up in the back seat.”
Jesse wiggled his eyebrows at Brian. “That sounds kinky. Let’s give that a try sometime.” The two burst into delighted laughter and hugged.
The boys sprang apart, blushing. Brian’s brother Frank stepped through the doorway.
“I said take a break, Jesse, not ‘go make out with Brian’.”
* * *
Jessie was halfway finished with the intricate dance required of teenagers resident in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts who desired to be licensed to drive a motor vehicle. Six months before, on the morning of his sixteenth birthday, he had filled out the application for his Learner’s Permit. This was followed by a brief reprise of a somewhat heated but familiar discussion with his mother, whose signature was required. Neither he nor his mother were strangers to this discussion, and since Jesse’s uncles had weighed in heavily on the side of Jesse, whom they had called ‘the plaintiff’, Jesse’s mother had yielded reluctantly to the momentum of Jesse’s argument. It was, after all, clear to all of them that Jesse had been preparing for this moment for a number of years. In fact, as a token of her resignation to the inevitable, one of Jesse’s birthday gifts from his mother that morning had been a pair of driving gloves, much to Jesse’s delight . The main impression his mother had taken away from his exuberant hug was how much bigger and taller her son suddenly had become.
The next day Jesse had paid a visit to the Registry office in Easthampton and passed the vision test and the written test. The following day found him enrolled in a driver’s education program accredited by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Jesse himself was paying for this out of his savings. It involved thirty required hours of classroom instruction, six backseat hours observing another licensed driver driving, then finally his own twelve hours of supervised behind-the-wheel experience. (‘Now we are going to turn left at the next block. Signal on, and prepare for your turn. What’s behind you? Where’s the traffic? Get into the turn lane. Slow down. Soft pedal, soft pedal. Come to a stop. Wait for your light. Now begin your turn, remember hand over hand, accelerate slowly, complete your turn. Where’s the traffic? What’s behind you? Straighten out, you’re drifting to the right...’); it was excruciating.
Class completed, Jesse had impatiently waited out the six-month period required of all Learner’s Permit holders before they could present themselves to an RMV inspector for the purpose of being examined behind the wheel. The six months was to be used to gain safe, accident- and summons-free driving experience under the supervision of a licensed driver over 21 years of age, but only between the hours of 5 a.m. and midnight and without any other teenaged person in the vehicle. Thankfully for Brian, this relieved him of any permitted involvement in Jesse’s quest for driving practice (except for those few clandestine sessions Jesse had managed to talk him into), and he was able to relax and watch the drama unfold for his boyfriend and his family. Jesse’s mother and his uncles Fred and Dave were licensed drivers well over the age of twenty-one. Not a single one of these adults would be at all sorry to see the end of the six-month period. In fact, it couldn’t come a moment too soon; while they all acknowledged that Jesse was a competent, careful driver, they also were unanimous in their view that Jesse was a very persistent driver, and they all shared Jesse’s impatience for The Day to arrive.
“Although we’ll be jumping right from the frying pan into the fire,” Fred pointed out to Dave. “Once he gets his license, the moment we show up he’s gonna want to borrow one of our cars.” Here Fred gave a wistful glance at his lovely Audi A6, the very car he once had let a fourteen-year-old Jesse drive around the block.
“Could be worse,” Dave observed. “He could be into motorcycles.”
Fred choked a little on the coffee he was sipping. “I think we need to start looking around for an old Volvo station wagon for him. They’re built like a tank, and would save a bundle on the insurance.”
“Well, a car like that sure would make his mother happy,” said Dave.
“Guess we know what Jesse will say about it, then.” They grinned sheepishly at one another, both remembering their own youthful angst over what any self-respecting teen could never be seen driving. Ancient, tank-like station wagons were high on that list.
Fred was scheduled to take Jessie, finally, for his driving test the following Monday. He and Dave would stay over beyond their usual biweekly Sunday visit designed to lend support to Fred’s widowed sister and her fatherless son. Monday morning Fred and Jesse would use the Schofield family sedan, an older Subaru. The uncles had decided that the Subaru represented less of a red flag to the examining officer than Fred’s Audi might. Besides, Jesse had practiced the most in it. Jesse said he didn’t care what he took the test in, so long as it happened without delay. Both uncles said 'amen’ to that. Jesse’s mother didn’t say anything, but she pursed her lips quite noticeably.
* * *
The next sighting of the big red dual-wheeled pickup truck came, oddly enough, that Friday night after work while Jesse was practicing parallel parking maneuvers in Brian’s old Honda Civic. They were in the back of the parking lot behind the bookstore, and although it was early evening there was still light enough to see. Brian, sitting in the passenger seat with his head swiveling constantly in every direction, was watching apprehensively for signs of law enforcement. Brian loved Jesse passionately, but if Jesse’s driving test didn’t go well on Monday he was probably going to die of a heart attack.
“Relax, Bri. I’ve got this down cold.” Jesse spun the steering wheel and backed the car perfectly between Brian’s brother Frank’s new Miata and the huge Buick that belonged to Brian’s dad. Brian had shut his eyes momentarily during the finale of the movement. It was bad enough that he had surreptitiously moved his dad’s car--he knew where the keys were, under the floor mat--in order to simulate a curbside parking space distance from the Miata’s rear bumper. Getting caught doing that would probably only result in mere grounding for a week or so. But getting caught with Jesse at the wheel, with only a Learner’s Permit and with only another teenaged driver in the car, was a big time no-no in the eyes of the law and he knew he could lose his own license if they were ever seen by the Amherst police. Besides, the bookstore was due to close for the evening and both Frank and his dad would soon be coming out to claim their cars.
Brian’s eyes snapped open as he heard a low rumble. Jesse was halfway out of the parking space ready to try another pass when both boys detected movement at the entrance of the parking lot. Jesse froze momentarily, then killed his lights while throwing the Honda into reverse. He drifted back into the parked position and shut off the engine. He and Brian quickly unsnapped their belts and switched seats, a maneuver they had already practiced. Meanwhile a pair of high-mounted headlights entered the lot and moved past the front row where several customer’s cars were still parked.
“It’s the truck I told you about!” said Jesse. It was coming straight toward them. Both Brian and Jesse began to duck as they watched it drive up alongside the row of cars with Brian’s Honda caught in the middle. As it moved slowly by on the passenger side the same burly driver, with his camouflage cap and his aviator sunglasses, looked down at the smaller compact car from his higher cab, straight at Jesse. Then he smiled. The truck seemed to hesitate a moment, then it drove off with a loud rumble of twin exhausts. It exited from the parking lot and disappeared past the front of the bookstore.
“Did you see that?” Jesse asked.
“What did he do? The roof was in the way; all I saw was the side of the truck.”
“He smiled at me!” Jesse was incredulous.
“Good smile or evil smile?”
“How do I know? I don’t even know who it is!” Jesse was getting a little agitated.
“He sure knew how to find us, though,” Brian said.
Suddenly there was a tap at the window by Brian’s head. Both boys jumped and let out involuntary grunts. They twisted in their seats to look out. It was Brian’s brother Frank. He motioned for Brian to roll down the window.
“Hem,” Frank said. “If you’re finished with Jesse’s parking practice, Brian, could you please move Dad’s car back where you found it?”
“Yes, Frank,” intoned the boys. Both hearts were beating very fast.
* * *
Jesse wondered what was keeping Brian. It was Monday evening and everyone else was here, gathered in the back yard, all ready to celebrate his brand new driver’s license. Artie was bragging about how he never once got run over during the six months of Jesse practicing with his mother’s car, even with their homes no farther apart than the street-width. He was demonstrating how to duck, twist, and jump in order to elude a car out of control. Jesse’s mother was laughing at Artie’s antics, but then she always laughed at Artie. Uncle Dave was skillfully distracting Artie’s girlfriend Judy from her advances on the grill, deflecting her offers to cook by asking her to help him set the long table with picnic plates, plastic utensils, and side dishes. Uncle Fred was flipping burgers and checking on the big pot of corn on the cob. The food would be ready any minute. Jesse thought maybe he’d better go around to the front and see if Brian was coming down the street.
However what he saw as he rounded the corner of the house was not Brian but the big red truck pulling to the curb. Jesse stopped, reached into his pocket for his phone, and put his thumb in readiness over the speed dial button for 911. He slowly approached the truck.
The burly driver lowered his window, shut down the engine, and removed his sunglasses. He stared down at Jesse from the cab.
“You’re Jesse Schofield, aren’t you.”
“Who are you? How do you know me?”
“I’ve got something for you, from your dad.”
“My dad’s dead,” Jesse said flatly. He pulled out his phone.
“I know. I was with him when he died.”
Jesse’s mind froze. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
Finally he was able to say “You’d better come around back. My mother and my uncles are there.”
The man sighed. “I guess you’re right. May as well get this done properly.” He pushed his door open and Jesse drew a deep breath. The man swung his legs out of the cab and Jesse saw two black metal shafts with skids attached protruding from the bottom of his pants. The skids touched down on the running board. The man stood erect and carefully stepped onto the ground. With a twist he turned and grabbed a metal forearm crutch and slipped it onto his left arm.
He turned to Jesse. “Corporal Walter M. Duckett, USMC Retired.” There was a suggestion of bitterness in his voice. He offered Jesse his right hand.
Jesse hesitated, slipped his phone back into his pocket, and shook hands with the Marine. “Jesse Schofield. But I guess you know that already.”
Just then Brian pulled up in his old Honda and parked it tightly against the front of the truck so that it would not be able to pull forward. He jumped out of his car and called to Jesse. “Jesse, is everything all right? Do you want me to call the cops?”
“C’mere, Brian. I want you to meet someone who knew my father.”
* * *
The three made their way slowly around the house toward the back. Jesse was holding Brian’s hand tightly. Walter Duckett moved carefully but adroitly on his artificial legs, aided by his crutch. A hush fell over the others as they approached the patio.
Jesse cleared his throat. “Everyone, this is Marine Corporal Walter Duckett. He knew my father in Iraq.”
Jesse’s mother gasped. She strode forward, her hands out. “Corporal Duckett, I’m Katherine Schofield, Jesse’s mother. Won’t you please come in and have a seat? We’re just about to eat, and there’s plenty of food.” As she took Duckett’s hand the others crowded around.
Walter Duckett swayed and braced himself with his crutch. “Not too many at once, please,” he muttered. “I’m not too good yet with crowds.” Jesse held out his hands and asked everyone to move back, and Brian hoisted a lawn chair and positioned it at the table for the Marine, who sank into it with a sigh.
Jesse’s mother asked everyone to sit, and they all filled in around the long table. Uncle Fred introduced himself and his husband Dave. Artie presented Judy and then himself. Katherine Schofield said “Jesse, offer Corporal Duckett something to drink.”
Jesse jumped up. “We’ve got sodas, and beer. And water, if you want, sir.”
“Water would be great. I’ll pass on the beer since I’m driving.”
“Take note, Jesse,” murmured Artie.
“When did I ever drink beer?” asked Jesse.
“Fourth of July, grade seven. You were polluted.”
“One beer, Artie, and you dared me.”
“All it took.”
The exchange broke the tension as everyone grinned and relaxed. Jesse and Artie had had some famous exploits, and the adults were well aware of most of them.
“Tell me, Corporal Duckett--” Jesse’s mother began.
“Please call me Walter, ma’am. I was a Marine, but now I’m a civilian.”
“Tell me, Walter, have you come far?”
“Just down from Lyme, New Hampshire. That’s just north of Hanover. But I’ve been here in the area for a little while.”
“Got that right,” breathed Brian. He gripped Jesse’s hand under the table, and Jesse gripped back.
“What brings you to Amherst, Walter?” asked Dave.
“Well, it’s a little complicated.” Walter took a swallow from the bottle of water. “I guess you might say I’m trying to complete a mission.”
Everyone’s attention sharpened, but then Jesse’s mother interrupted. “I’m sure we all would like to hear about it, Walter, but let’s do it over dinner. Fred is signaling that the food is ready and it would be a shame to let it grow cold. Please everyone, let’s pass the bowls. Walter, how do you like your hamburger?”
“Er, rare, ma’am. And thank you very much for having me.” Walter Duckett shifted uncomfortably but Katherine filled his plate with potato salad and an ear of corn, while Fred brought a hamburger in a bun over from the grill.
Once the food had been passed and plates loaded, Jesse’s Uncle Fred stood and cleared his throat. “I have a toast.” Artie quickly stopped chewing, gulped, and brought his napkin to his mouth. “I would like to acknowledge the man of the hour, our Jesse, who only today has fulfilled his lifelong dream and achieved the certification he has been aiming toward for at least as long as I have known him. I give you Jesse Schofield, Licensed Driver!”
“Hear, hear!” The crowd intoned cheerfully and raised their glasses. Jesse blushed, and a huge grin threatened to swallow his face.
Jesse’s mother turned to Walter and murmured, “Perhaps a little background is needed here, Walter. You see, Jesse has been looking forward to getting his driver’s license for such a long time, and today the pressure is finally off him, and us.”
“I get it, ma’am,” said Walter, just as softly, “I was the same way.” He put down his glass. “In fact, that’s one of the main reasons I’m here. Would you mind if I waited until I can tell you the whole story? I don’t think I can get through it more than once.” Katherine Schofield looked at Walter carefully, then nodded.
* * *
Jesse’s mother put down the ice cream dipper. “Is that everyone?” she asked. The murmurs signified that it was. Mounds of Rocky Road ice cream were quickly disappearing as she sat down and turned to Walter Duckett. “Well, Walter, can I get you anything more to drink?”
“No, ma’am. I’m stuffed, and this water will do me fine. I guess you’re wondering why I showed up tonight.” As Walter’s words were overheard the group fell silent. Artie quickly exchanged glances with Jesse and Brian as the boys stirred in their seats. Jesse’s Uncle Dave sat up straighter and focused his attention.
“Sarge--your husband, ma’am, but we all called him Sarge--saved my life. Twice.” A stir went around the table. “We were a tight outfit, thanks to Sarge. Marines are usually tight, we spend so much time training in small groups, but the guys in our team were really good friends. That’s sometimes more a curse than a blessing, when you’re in a war zone, because it makes it so much harder when you lose someone.” Walter took a sip of water and swallowed slowly. “Sarge was a great guy, a go-to guy for everyone, and he always had an ear for your troubles. He’d do anything if the problem was in the squad and he could fix it, and if the problem was back home or somewhere outside the tent he’d be there to talk to you and help you deal with it. We all looked up to him as our main man.” Here Walter did choke, and he wiped at his mouth with his napkin. Katherine blinked several times and put her hand on his arm as everyone shifted uncomfortably. Jesse looked down and Brian squeezed his hand.
“I’d better get the hardest part over with first. We were tasked with escorting a load of ordnance to an outpost just outside of Fallujah. I was Sarge’s driver. He knew I was a nut for driving (Artie nudged Jesse) and he always gave me the duty. Our Humvee was leading the convoy when we started taking RPG rounds from the rocks up ahead. I started jinking the vehicle and Sarge told me to watch the road and goose it while he watched the rocks and directed my turns. Well, they must have been firing anti-tank rounds because they were coming straight in rather than bursting and we took one right through the windshield just as Sarge pulled me out of the driver’s seat and threw me toward the back with him halfway on top of me. I don’t know how he did it.” Walter swallowed hard and stopped. Tears were running down his cheeks. He went on, softly and halting, as everyone leaned in to hear. “The round tore both my legs off but my upper body was protected. Sarge took it in the back. He was killed instantly.”
There was dead silence, broken only by Jesse quietly sobbing against Brian’s shoulder. Tears streamed down Katherine’s face but she put her arms around Walter and hugged him tightly.
After a few minutes Walter cleared his throat and went on. “It was my luck that the corpsman was sitting in the back end and survived. I found out later he was able to get tourniquets around what was left of my legs and by then the rest of the platoon had come up and returned fire. I was completely out of it by then and didn’t know what was going on until I woke up in Germany.”
Walter sipped at his water and looked at Katherine. “I never was able to find out much more than that, from one of the other guys who survived and showed up at the hospital in Landstuhl. We lost six men that day, but the hardest loss was Sarge. He was my friend. We had gotten pretty close because we had been thrown together from when we were sent to Camp Pendleton to train with the California Marines.”
“What’s that mean?” asked Dave. Walter turned toward him. Katherine Schofield was weeping steadily and had covered her face with her napkin. Her brother Fred moved around the table and embraced her.
“Well, it was kinda odd, a couple of Yankees in with a bunch of surfers. You see, the Marines have two big training centers, the Second Marines here in the East at Lejuene in North Carolina, and the First Marines are at Camp Pendleton in California. Boys from all over the country end up at both, of course, but real Yankees like us are way outnumbered when we’re sent to the West Coast so we tend to stick together when we run into each other.”
Jesse gathered himself and took a deep breath. He sat up a little straighter, although he was still leaning against Brian. Walter looked over at him.
“Your dad and I got put into the same fire team. Then when he made sergeant he took over the squad and I got to lead the fire team under him. He had two other teams. We got to be buddies, and he told me a lot about you, Jesse, and your mother. I told him about growing up on the family farm with my folks and my uncle’s family. My mother died when I was in grade school, and my Aunt Dee raised me along with her two boys.
“I’d always wanted to be a Marine. My dad was one, in Vietnam, and since I was the youngest kid on the farm he and I both knew there wasn’t enough farmland to split up with my uncle’s kids so he signed the papers for me when I graduated.”
Something Walter said earlier had been bothering Jesse. “Uh, Walter, didn’t you say my dad saved your life twice? What did you mean by that?”
“That’s right," said Walter. “By the time our outfit landed in Iraq, civil order had broken down and the gangs had taken control. Some claimed to be religious organizations, some were just out-and-out bad guys. They all terrorized most of the neighborhoods in the cities and spread throughout the countryside. Around every American military installation there were beggars, mostly little kids sent out by their families or even by the gangs to beg. Outside of our base there was one little guy I would see, and he broke my heart he was so pathetic. He was nothing but big eyes, rags, and bare feet. I started sneaking him food and we looked for each other every day. His name was Mastafa. He only knew a couple of words of English and I didn’t know any Farsi at all, but we managed to communicate and he hung around me whenever he could.”
Walter looked down and coughed into his napkin. Dave popped a beer and handed it to him. Walter grabbed it gratefully and swallowed it.
“I thought at first he was an orphan, but one of the villagers who did speak some English told us that the boy’s mother was dead and his father was in one of the bad gangs. Basically, his father had thrown him away, but still expected Mastafa to hand over to him whatever he got every day by begging. I guess Mastafa had been doing that, and all he ever got to eat was what I made him chew and swallow while I was there with him. He never gained any weight. He looked like he was about ten years old, even though the villager told us he was a teenager. I guess the family had been dirt poor even before the war.”
Walter looked desperately at Dave and Dave handed him another beer.
“One day Mastafa disappeared, and after a couple of days without seeing him I got worried and told Sarge. We took our fire team and went to find the villager who had helped us before. Not many would speak to us, you know. The villager, an old man, didn’t want to talk to us, but Sarge somehow persuaded him to speak. Sarge was really good with the villagers, and they all seemed to respect him.”
Walter stopped talking and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He turned to Jesse’s mother. “This is not a good part, ma’am. Maybe we should take a break.” He glanced over at Judy, sitting beside Artie and listening intently. Her eyes were very big.
Katherine patted Walter’s arm. “We need to hear everything,” she said. Walter nodded.
“The villager told us that Mastafa’s father had come with the rest of his gang a few days before and he had accused Mastafa of holding out on him. You see, it turned out he had sent the boy out to work as a prostitute, and he was convinced I had been using him that way. Of course I hadn’t. Mastafa was supposed to bring back money every night, money I was supposed to have given him for his services. Mastafa denied that we had ever done anything sexual, but his father didn’t believe him. He shot Mastafa, and killed him.” Walter groaned and bit his lip. “They took us to the body. The villagers had refused to bury him, because they thought Mastafa was a homosexual.
“You need to know that the Iraqis despise homosexuals, and a boy suspected of being like that is cast out from the family so that they will not lose their “honor,” yet at the same time many of these families expect those boys to contribute their earnings. The gang was convinced that Mastafa and I had a sexual relationship, and if Mastafa didn’t have the money, then I must still owe it to him. The villagers were equally convinced that I had been holding out on Mastafa, and they were furious. They blamed me for his death.”
Walter looked awful. He bent his head and spoke so low everyone had to strain to hear. “I blame me for his death.” He stopped.
The group around the table sat, stunned. Katherine turned and wrapped Walter in a tight embrace. “You poor, dear man. You’ve been through hell, haven’t you?”
Walter gulped and nodded. For a few minutes he just sat, and Katherine smoothed his hair and murmured softly to him.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he finally said. “I’ve been seeing a therapist at the V.A. hospital over in Northampton. That’s one of the things that brought me down here. It’s a psychiatric hospital and they’ve been helping me with all this. I’m getting better at dealing with it.”
Fred stood and patted Walter’s shoulder. “How about a break, everyone?” he said. “I for one could sure use the restroom.” He moved toward the house. “Come on, Walter, I’ll show you where.”
Fred’s words seemed to release the tension, and people stirred. Walter got upright with the aid of his crutch and after a moment of hesitation he lurched a step or two before he gained his rhythm and followed Fred into the house. Katherine wiped her eyes and gathered up dirty picnic plates and utensils and with Jesse and Brian’s help cleared the table. Dave checked the grill and, finding it had cooled down, started scraping the grates. Artie and Judy decided to run across the street to Artie’s house to use the facilities there, and the others drifted into the Schofield house to do the same. There was an air of expectation, and by unspoken agreement they all returned to their seats about fifteen minutes later. Katherine had made a big urn of coffee and she and Brian served out cups of the dark brew. Walter returned with Fred. He looked a bit refreshed, his hair and shirt collar evidence that with Fred’s help he’d splashed some water on his face.
“Walter,” said Katherine, “I think I speak for all of us when I say that you’ve told us more than enough, and I think you ought to just sit for awhile and enjoy some coffee. I’m immensely grateful that you’ve come here to share with us memories that are clearly brutal but which contain information that we’ve never known. You are filling in a void that has been haunting this family for almost four years.”
“Thank you, ma’am. If you can bear with me, I just have a little bit more to tell you, then I’ll know I’ve finished what I owe Sarge.” Walter seemed to have gained new energy and he sat up straighter, with Fred’s hand on his shoulder.
“I asked Sarge if we could take Mastafa back to the base with us. I couldn’t stand that he was just lying there, in a ditch. Sarge understood what I was going through and he agreed right away. Mastafa hardly weighed anything at all and I was able to carry him myself and load him in the back of our vehicle. As I turned to shut the tailgate I took a round in the chest.” There was a gasp around the table. “Of course we all were wearing our body armor and that’s what saved me, but they were firing at me for sure. It knocked me on my ass. I think the gang had been there in the village all along. Two more shots just missed my head and ricocheted off the plating on the Humvee. I was a little dazed, and Sarge grabbed me under my armpits and hauled me into the passenger side. Meanwhile the other guys returned fire as they loaded themselves in. Sarge drove, hell for leather, until we got back to the base. If it weren’t for Sarge I’d be as cold as Mastafa. He saved my life then, just like he did later.”
Everyone was quiet until Brian asked, “Were you able to bury Mastafa?”
“Yes. We had a Muslim chaplain attached to battalion headquarters, and he officiated. I told him Mastafa was no whore.” Walter sighed. Fred patted his shoulder.
There was silence around the table until Artie said, “Think what the Marines would have done to you if you had been gay, caught in a situation like that.”
Walter looked up. “I am gay.”
There was a collective intake of breath. “You’re gay?” asked Brian.
“I figured out I was gay in high school and before I knew what it really meant I was a Marine. ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t act.’ I guess you could call me a theoretical gay. I never had a boyfriend like you.” Walter looked at Brian, and glanced shyly at Fred and Dave, “much less a husband to stand by me.”
“So you’ve never...” Jesse blushed and stopped. “Er, sorry.”
“Never dated? Nope. Although I did get close to a guy I met at Walter Reed. I was there nearly two years getting my legs. He was my physical therapist, and he proved to me that I was right about being gay.”
Jesse blushed even more. “Did my dad know?”
“Oh, yes. We talked about it a lot. He said it didn’t bother him a bit. He said he’d had gay friends, when he was in high school and at UMass, and he had tremendous respect for what a lot of gay guys had to go through, particularly playing sports or in the military.”
“He said that?” Jesse was glowing.
“Jesse, he said that he would love and support his son, if he turned out to be gay. That’s what I came to tell you.”
“Oh, Brian!” Jesse threw himself into Brian’s arms, tears flowing, yet with a smile so wide it threatened to dislocate his jaw. Everyone around the table laughed, and relaxed, and started to talk. Jesse’s mother, tears in her eyes, stood and went to Jesse and leaned down to embrace both boys.
Walter stood up carefully and propped himself on his crutch. “I have something to show you, Jesse. Can you come out to the truck with me?”
Jesse rose to follow Walter, then stopped. “Could Brian come with me?”
They made their way toward the front of the house, returning on the path they’d followed when Walter had arrived. Jesse gripped Brian’s hand tightly, and Walter moved along methodically on his artificial legs, aided by the tripod he created step by step with his forearm crutch. Jesse observed his movement carefully, and whispered to Brian “I have to find out how that works.”
When they reached the truck Walter threw open the driver-side door and motioned to the boys to look inside. The lights glowed softly, revealing a lush interior with an adjustable driver’s chair positioned on a hydraulic pedestal that could swing the chair sidewise to permit Walter to mount and dismount easily. In addition to the usual foot pedals there appeared to be an elaborate set of hand controls arrayed around the steering column and a computer-like keyboard positioned off to the side.
Walter said, “I’ve always loved driving, Jesse, just like you. But this is what makes it possible now. My new legs and feet just don’t have the reflex action to give me a safe ride. So regular automotive layouts won’t work for me. For one thing, bucket seats would make it impossible for my butt to even position my body correctly.”
The boys examined the set-up while Walter poked around in a box on the floor of the passenger side. He came up with a folder and a stained, wrinkled envelope. “This is what I want to show you. Let’s take it back in the light so the others can see.”
Everyone fell silent as they returned. Walter moved to the center of the table and laid out his folder and the envelope. The creased, yellowed envelope had the words “For Sergeant Howard Schofield” scrawled across it. Walter flipped the folder open to reveal several 8 X 10 glossy photographs of a sleek automobile, bright red and shiny with chrome. It looked like it had just come off some dealer’s showroom.
“Wow! What’s that?” Jesse exclaimed.
“It’s a 1985 Ford Mustang GT. It was my dad’s car. He was a car nut, too, and he drove it while I was in high school. He passed it on to me when I graduated. I had one great summer’s ride in it before I joined the Marines. It’s been on blocks out in our barn ever since, except for when my dad would run it up to keep it sweet.”
“It’s a beauty,” Jesse said. Everyone murmured agreement.
“After your dad saved me the day we found Mostafa’s body, I began to think about what would happen to the car after I died in Iraq. It was the only thing I owned that was worth anything. I was pretty sure I was going to be killed sooner or later. Sarge had done more for me than any other human, so I signed it over to him. I told him it was his when I was no longer able to use it. He thought I was crazy but he agreed to the deal just to shut me up about it. He wouldn’t take the paper but I put it in an envelope and laid it on top of my stuff in my locker.
“Well, I sure can’t drive a car like that anymore. I could never set it up like I showed you in my truck, with hand controls and a high enough seat. All I can do is go out to the barn and stare at it every now and then.”
“But what about the rest of your family? Your cousins? Can’t they use it? That’s a terrible waste of a great looking car.” Jesse was incredulous.
“Rob’s the only cousin left, and he’s a tractor guy. His idea of a swell ride is a Subaru.”
“Tell me about it,” said Jesse. “My dad loved Subarus. We still have one.”
“I’ve seen you in it, practicing your driving.”
“What’s up with that? Why have you been stalking me?” Everyone looked up at that, and Dave turned a hard stare toward Walter.
Walter hesitated. He appeared to be deeply embarrassed. Finally he spoke. “I messed up. I’d set up my appointments at the V.A. Medical Center over in Northampton to begin when you turned sixteen and would get your driver’s license. That was when I was going to come by and tell you about your dad. It was something I’d promised myself I’d do as soon as I was sure you were old enough to hear about it. I didn’t know you had a six month waiting period here in Massachusetts before you could take your test. In New Hampshire you can get your learner’s permit when you are fifteen and a half, and your license the day you turn sixteen. So I drove by once or twice a week when I came down from Lyme to see how you were doing learning to drive. You’re a really good driver.”
Jesse blushed. “Thanks. But what does me being able to drive have to do with you telling us about what happened to my dad?”
“Well, I wanted to get it all over with at once, and I had to wait until you could drive so I could give you your car.”
“What?” Jesse was astounded. “What do you mean?”
“It’s yours. Your father has been the owner of record for four years now as far as the state of New Hampshire is concerned, and you’re his heir. It’s your car. Here’s the title.” Walter pushed the battered envelope across the table toward Jesse.
Trembling, Jesse picked up the envelope and opened it. He unfolded a legal-looking document, looked at it blankly, and handed it to his Uncle Dave. Dave perused it quickly, raised his eyebrows, and looked at Jesse.
“It’s a New Hampshire title transfer, from Walter Duckett to Howard Schofield, for a 1985 Ford Mustang. It’s got both Walter’s and your dad’s signatures on it, and it’s been notarized and recorded. It’s perfectly legal.”
“Ohmygod,” breathed Jesse. Brian tightened his arm around Jesse’s shoulder. “Dude!” cried Artie, and fist-bumped his other shoulder. Jesse’s mother hugged Walter. “You dear man!” she said. Walter turned red, then smiled, his first real smile of the evening.
* * *
Katherine insisted that Walter stay the night. “You can’t possibly drive after all those beers and all that emotion.” Even though Fred and Dave were occupying the guest room, there was a sofa-bed in the family room on the ground floor, where Walter could access it easily. He had been staying at a motel in Northampton and after a little hemming and hawing he agreed. Artie and Judy took off for parts unknown, and Jesse walked Brian out to his car.
“Can you believe this, Bri?” Jesse was still trembling with excitement. Brian squeezed Jesse tight. He was so happy for his boyfriend. Finding out about his dad after all these years of sadness and loss and wondering what had happened. Learning that his dad accepted and respected gay men, including his son. And knowing his dad had died a hero. Jesse so deserved this.
“Come back for breakfast, Bri. Walter wants us to figure out when we can come up to see his farm and get my car. My car! Can you believe this?”
“I wouldn’t miss it. I’ll be over around eight.” The two boys embraced, and said goodnight. Then said goodnight again. Finally Brian drove away and Jesse went inside.
The adults were gathered in the living room. Dave was asking Walter how he managed, living on a farm.
“I’ve been turning the old place into a family-friendly destination,” said Walter. “My cousin Rob is all that’s left of my uncle’s family. He and his wife Dot grow organic vegetables and fruit that we sell all summer long. I had a new salesroom built out by the highway. I run that with the help of local high school kids and manage the business side of things. We have seasonal events, like pick your own strawberries, then we do hay rides and pumpkins in the fall, and a corn field maze. We sell canned goods and jams and jellies all year 'round.”
“Does it pay?”
“Oh, yeah. We’re right outside of Hanover, and the Dartmouth crowd eat it up. I negotiated with the King Arthur flour people to be a licensed outlet, and that’s a huge draw. We’re thinking of starting a small bread bakery so some more of the local kids can get employment. Helping kids is my main motivation. We have a lot of kids on the payroll but there’s always room for you.” Walter turned to Jesse.
“Thanks, Walter. We’re really looking forward to seeing it,” said Jesse. “Brian’s coming back for breakfast so we can figure out when we can come up.”
“Well, that’s our signal to shut down for the evening and get some sleep, then,” Katherine announced. “Walter, let me show you where everything is.”
* * *
Fred and Dave climbed the stairs with Jesse. They paused at the door to Jesse’s room.
“Are you OK with this, Jesse?” asked Fred. “It’s a lot to take onboard.”
Jesse looked at his uncles and thought a moment. “I’ll always be sad I grew up without my dad here,” he said finally. “But now I know who he was, and what he did, and I’m really proud I’m his son.” Jesse paused and then said softly, “Besides, I have you, and Uncle Dave.”
“Thank you, dear heart,” said Fred.
They all hugged a long hug, then Jesse went into his room. His body was profoundly tired, ready for the renewal of a deep sleep, yet his mind was racing, filled with images of his dad, and Walter, and battle, and ragged children, and turmoil, and death. He pulled his clothes off and sat on the edge of his bed and picked up the framed photograph from the nightstand.
Sergeant Howard J. Schofield sat posed in his Marine dress blues, white cap positioned squarely, ribbons arranged in precise rows. The expression on his face was relaxed, yet seemed firm and strong. Jesse examined it carefully, remembering the man who had tucked him in and read him bedtime stories; the man who had played catch with him in the back yard and taken him to ball games and taught him how to fish. This was the man who had planted flowers and mowed the lawn and made pancakes on Sunday mornings. Those precious memories were all intact. Jesse blinked, and swallowed hard.
He missed his dad, but now he knew something more about him, something profound and fundamental. His dad had gone away, but he had still been his dad. Only he was not just Jesse’s dad anymore. He’d been a dad for other men, men who also needed support, and guidance, and picking up when they fell. Jesse was proud, proud that his dad was a man who had reached out, who had changed lives.
And the greatest discovery of all was that his dad had managed to reach back to Jesse, back to his own gay son and accepted him and demonstrated his love for him. A love that had been there all along.
Jesse smiled as the photograph blurred. He had his dad back, and it was time for sleep. He turned out the light.
Grateful thanks to Cole Parker, who lavished as much careful attention upon these words as he does upon his own.
--James Merkin (firstname.lastname@example.org)