The heat was one hundred two according to the thermometer on your dashboard. You wore a light-weight dress in an appropriate dark color. Your wet hair was tied in a knot at the back of your head, cool on your neck. And you were late because of a two-mile back up on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. A guy in a dark suit, who looked like a secret service agent, greeted you. He stood next to a black sedan, frowning. Perspiration beaded on the skin above his lip.
You followed him past row after row of tombstones. The sky was white and it hurt your eyes. Seven
Marines stood at attention when you stopped the car. In the oppressive heat, they wore white pants, deep blue dress jackets. Hats. Gloves.
You sat in a green velvet covered chair in the front row. Numb. You concentrated on your wet hair instead of where you were. Where you never wanted to be. Tears bubbled and spilled down your face and you wiped them.
The American flag was folded in an elaborate ceremony in front of you. Twenty-one shots were fired by the seven Marines who stood, side by side, where you parked your car. A bugler played taps. The Marine who handed you the folded flag on behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation couldn’t have been more than twenty years old. So young, he could have been your son.
The last time you saw your son, he held out his hand to lead you in a dance. The White Album was playing and Paul McCartney was singing “I Will.” You were thrilled to move with him in his arms. Tall. You looked up at him when you felt his fingers, light and firm, tap your back. You let go of his left shoulder, ducked under his arm and twirled.
He left for Afghanistan the next day, forbidding you from discussing where he was on social media. He does not post anything on his Facebook page.
The dance helped you forget that your son was going, even though you’d thought about it for a long time. He’d enrolled in an ROTC program because there was no money for college. Now a captain in the United States Army, he shares the same name as your dad, who was also a captain, in the Marines.
Your son’s father did not know he was in Afghanistan. Neither of you told him.
Your son has his father’s blonde hair, his light gray eyes. They share the same jaw line, the same large teeth, but you don’t hold that against him. You haven’t seen his father in more than two decades. He moved several hundred miles south, requesting a transfer from the corporation that employed the both of you.
At work, your son’s father had included you in his circle of colleagues; the only woman. You were elated. He was a lacrosse star in college. His name is etched on a bronze plaque in the athletic center of the college’s hall of fame. Swift and fierce on the field, he was also a good shot, scoring goal after goal; an All-American.
His lacrosse career was discussed regularly at Friday night happy hours. You would meet him and the others across the street from your corporation at the end of each week. The bar was in a century old bank building that had been renovated. A disc jockey stood behind a long, portable table at the edge of a small dance floor. He played tunes by the Clash, Michael Jackson, the B52’s.
You wanted to dance, but you would not ask him. If he was between girlfriends, he would ask you. He never held you when you danced. But he did follow you home, more than once. When you told him you were pregnant, he said, “I’m so sorry.” Then he requested a transfer to the corporation’s headquarters, an eight-hour drive away.
Your son sat beside you, holding your hand in the heat that day at Arlington National Cemetery, “Do you remember the thunderstorm after Gramps’ funeral?” he asked you when “I Will” ended and you released him, stepping back.
“The basement flooded,” you nodded.
“Yup. We both cried.”
“It was like we couldn’t catch a break. Gramps was gone, it was so hot and then the sky opened up and we wound up mopping all that water from the basement floor.”
“I was so tired,” you murmured.
Your son embraced you and you felt tears, again, “Mom, don’t think for one minute that I’m not coming back. I am.”
“I know,” you lied. You had no idea and you were terrified. You still are.
There is an email from Afghanistan that exalts you. Your son has received the care package you sent him. You mailed it twenty days ago to his APO address. Since the postal clerk told you it would take five to six days to arrive, you have been tracking it daily, thinking it was lost, or worse, he was.
In the care package, you sent him a leather-bound journal. He used to write stories and he showed you one. It was about the twin towers in New York City the day they were struck and came down. Well written. Descriptive. He conveyed the despair you remember talking over with him that day. He was fifteen.
You also sent him your copy of On Writing by Stephen King. Filled with candid revelations and encouragement, the book was one that he told you he’d always wanted to read. You were delighted that you had guessed he would like it.
In the next care package, you place your dad’s thick, paperback volume of Edgar Allan Poe’s work. Your son read his stories because your dad did. You have placed a bookmark for “Annabel Lee” and another for “The Tell-Tale Heart.” You wonder if he will remember.
“‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ was my favorite,” your son told your dad the summer he was twelve. You were in the kitchen; they were on the back porch, just outside the screen door.
“Because?” you heard your dad ask.
“It’s just cool,” your son replied, his voice loud. You could sense his excitement. You took a deep, strong breath as you pulled a container of marinated chicken breasts out of the refrigerator.
“C’mon, you’ve gotta’ give me more than that,” your dad said.
Plucking a pair of tongs from the kitchen drawer, you could hear your son tell his grandfather, “It’s just — I don’t know. Almost magical the way he comes up with the whole idea of the thumping heart. You know he made it up. But the story is so real.”
“He was creative. A real talent.”
“Yeah. I felt like it could have happened.”
You stepped outside, the container of chicken breasts in your arms. The tongs were threaded between your fingers.
“Here, Mom. I’ve got it,” your son said, stepping toward you and taking the container of chicken. Turning to your dad, he asked, “Gramps, which Poe story is your favorite?”
Your dad stood up, “Oh, I’m more partial to his poems, the one to Annabel Lee is my favorite.” He retrieved the pair of tongs from you.
You were surprised to hear that; your dad liked Poe’s love poem best.
“Why?” your son asked, a laugh in his voice.
“Because it sings, it’s so rhythmic. And it’s a reflection of the difficult life he had.”
The two of them descended the wooden steps of the back porch. The Weber grill was on the lawn at the foot of the stairs. When he reached it, your dad lifted the lid to the grill and looked up at you, “It also reminds me of your mother.” Your mother died when you were born. Your parents met a few years after VJ Day and married within six weeks.
“I never expected to come home,” your father always told you; “I was relieved when the bombs ended the war.” He was eighteen years old when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Your dad flew thirty-five dive bombing missions from Mindanao, Philippines, in the summer of 1945. He was preparing to invade Japan.
You hum “I Will,” as you pack goldfish crackers, Hershey bars and Oreo cookies with the Edgar Allan Poe book in your son’s new care package. You stand in line to mail it and the same clerk smiles and tells you it should arrive in five to six days, again.
Forty days go by. You hear nothing from your son. You track his package, but it is not delivered. You email your son. He does not reply. Another day goes by. Another. You miss the blandness; the days without worry about him. Waiting. It is a struggle to live with the fear.
And then, on the forty-third day, he sends you an email. “Sorry for the late response,” he says. “I’ve just been busy.” But he got your package.
“I reread ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,'” he adds with a “thumbs-up” sign.
“What about ‘Annabel Lee?'” you type.
“Gramps’ favorite. Not yet. Too sad.”
Your dad is buried in a mausoleum at Arlington National Cemetery. All that is left of him is ash.
Time has helped with the deep hell of grief, but you still cry when you think of him. You miss his voice. You cannot call him to ask for his advice, to tell him you love him. You have not been able to listen to Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” either. Your father taught you how to jitterbug to that song. Your dad smiled at you, his palms out, “Just follow me. When I tap you on the back, I want you to twirl.”
You last danced with him on the laminate floor of his assisted living facility. No carpet, of course. The smooth surface was easier to clean when there were “accidents.”
Your dad was not able to walk unassisted. But with your help, he could lift his hands off the fancy walker he used, with the hand brakes, and stand in your arms. The last time you danced with him, you moved slowly, carefully. He hummed “In the Mood” along with the compact disc you played on a table next to his bed.
You cherish the memory of his light touch, tapping you on the back when you were thirty. A new mother. Exhausted. But you lifted your hand off his shoulder, ducked under his arm and twirled.
Caryn Coyle is an editor at the Baltimore based literary journal, LOCH RAVEN REVIEW and her fiction has appeared in more than three dozen literary publications. She lives in Massachusetts.