Semper Fidelis

I was sitting in the easy chair next to Eleanor’s bed, holding her hand and nodding in and out of consciousness. I probably wouldn’t have noticed him, but the smell of those Altoids he always chewed gave him away. I remember wondering if he wasn’t the Grim Reaper coming to take her from me.

“Hi Bill,” Danny whispered.

I didn’t bother standing, not that he expected me to; I’d never made much of secret about what I thought of him. He slid a chair over and sat, facing Eleanor more than me. I hoped my silence would gnaw on him, but taking a hint was never one of his strong suits. Once in a while, I’d glance up at him just in time to see his eyes dart away. I was about to ask him what the hell he was gawking at when he spoke up again.

“She looks peaceful.”

No, she didn’t. Her thinning silver curls were oily and flat from being mashed into her pillow and not being washed in a few days, and her forehead showed lines I’d never noticed before. I traced the back of my fingers along her cheekbone, part of me hoping an eyebrow might arch or a finger might twitch. She wasn’t there.

Danny shifted a few times, sucking in now and then like he was going to say something else. One of these days, I figured he’d get around to saying what was really on his mind. Until then, I wasn’t going to waste the last few moments I had with Eleanor waiting on him.

Eventually, he cleared the frogs out and tried some small talk. He sounded like he might hit puberty any day, and his looks didn’t help. I knew he was north of forty, but I bet he’d get carded nine times out of ten. He asked about the kids, whether Amy had made partner yet (yes), whether Emily had had the new baby (no), how Sarah’s residency was going (fine) and if Dawn had been accepted into OCS (yes). Clearly, Eleanor talked to him more than I ever did. She was the sociable one. I made a habit of saying as little as I could to him.

He went silent again after running out of bullshit. The steady gasp and puff of the ventilator filled the void, along with the muffled play-by-play of the Lions game filtering in from across the hall. I tossed a glance his direction as he took a sip of whatever he had in his Starbucks cup. I looked back to Eleanor before he could see I’d been looking at him. He shifted again, clearing his throat.

“Soooo…what are the doctors saying?”

He already knew the answer. I focused on my wedding band and twisted it around the smooth, pale groove that hadn’t seen daylight since Kennedy took office. Our whole life was etched into it: twenty-five years in the Corps, three tours in ‘Nam, the three months I spent in Walter Reed, the births of five children—the death of one… I’d gotten so used to that ring, the only time I noticed it was when I took it off.

“You know, of all the ways I ever thought my marriage would end, I have to admit I never imagined it ending like this.”

I wasn’t sure what I expected him to say, or why I’d even said it. The last thing I expected, though, was nothing. Most times, I couldn’t get that bible-thumper to shut the hell up. He was always riding my ass about needing to quit hanging out with Johnny Walker and the Marlboro Man and get to church. The one time I wanted him to say something, nada. If he’d offered up a token Lord’s Prayer—hell, even a cough or a sniffle or a belch or a fart—it would have been better than listening to that ventilator.

I glared at him. I was hoping the weight of my stare might light a fire under his ass, but he was engrossed in that cup. The old D.I. in me wanted to get right in his beak and bark at him until he cried for his momma like a new boot at Pendleton. Instead, I just watched him bouncing his leg while he fiddled with that cup. He traced the seam with his thumbs and turned it around like he was looking for a way to climb inside it.

I gave Eleanor’s hand a squeeze. Even bony and limp, there was something about having her hand in mine that settled me down. She’d always liked Danny—The Reverend Webber, she called him. Said he was like the son we never had. Every Sunday, she went to church all gussied up like she was meeting the President, but no matter how much she nagged me about it, I never came along. I wasn’t about to let some eight-ball who was still suckin’ his momma’s tit while I was overseas getting my ass shot off tell me what was what. Every once in a while, she’d invite him over for coffee or tea or whatever the hell preachers drink. It’s funny; I can still see her glaring at me over the brim of her glasses while she sat on the couch thumbing through the IGA ad.

“Honestly, William, would it kill you to sit in the same room with him and carry on a civil conversation?”

Might not kill me, I remember thinking. Every time he showed up, though, I’ll be damned if that lawnmower didn’t suddenly need its carburetor rebuilt. One day he tried to buddy up to me. Asked if I needed help. I should have just kept my mouth shut, but my give-a-fuck-inator fell off three beers back. I don’t even remember what I said, but Eleanor heard it. Sometimes on rainy days, I can still feel her boot up my ass.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “If there’s anything I can do…”

My fingers balled. My jaw tightened. Who the hell did he think he was, acting like I needed pity? I swear, if he would have looked at me just then, he’d have pissed himself. Then I looked back at Eleanor and decided it would be unbecoming to deck him in front of her. Snot-nosed kid or not, she liked him.

“God, I need a smoke.”

I looked away. Before long, I found myself fixated on the clock—twenty-fifty-three. It’s funny how time seems to move faster the older you get. Seems like it was just weeks ago that Amy and her husband flew out with the grandkids. Now that I think about it, though—the fireworks, the parade, little Billy with that fishing pole twice as big as him—I guess it was actually months. Now it was different. Now I felt every cold, sharp second slipping through my fingers, and the harder I tried to hang on, the deeper they cut. Maybe it was the universe’s way of telling me it was time to let go. Yeah, well maybe the universe needed to go fuck itself. My eyes drifted to Eleanor’s hand. Her nail polish had started to flake. She’d have hated that.

“How did you think it was going to end?”

What?”

“Your marriage. How did you think it would end?”

I rested her hand back on her belly, promising her under my breath I wouldn’t knock him out. When I finally made myself focus on him, I was surprised to see him still in his chair. He was braver than I thought—or stupider. He took another sip and sat there staring at me like he was trying to shrink my head.

“What the hell kind of question is that?” I felt the veins in my neck. I don’t know whether it was nicotine shakes or me getting mad, but my hands trembled. I swear to God, unconscious or not, the boy had Eleanor to thank for his safety. I relaxed my fists and took a long breath to ratchet down the urge to drill him in the running lights. I watched Danny’s eyes dart to my hands. I hoped he would take the hint and back off. Instead, he leaned forward and squared off with me, resting his forearms on his thighs and clasping his hands.

“I don’t know.” He stammered. “You said this was the last way you thought your marriage would end. Were there other possibilities you thought were likely?”

He knew he was poking a hornet’s nest. To this day, I have no idea why I felt like I owed him any explanation at all, but there was something about the way he kept looking at me—into me, really—that I just couldn’t shake. I kept glaring, hoping he’d lose his nerve. A dozen answers ran through my head. He just stayed quiet like he was watching for a tell. Much as I hated to admit it, he was right.

“Doesn’t matter. You wouldn’t understand.”

He crossed his ankle over his knee again, swirling his cup.

“Try me.”

“Yeah. O-kay.” I headed toward the door. “I’m going for a smoke before I… never mind.”

I don’t know whether it was a whole lot of brave or a whole lot of stupid that got into that kid’s head, but he stood between me and the doorway. My jaw clenched. “I’m gonna tell you one time, son. I’m a whole ton of pissed off, so if you like your face—”

“I know it’s not easy to lose someone you care about.”

I felt my nose get hot. My chin quivered. Bile crept from under my tongue. My heart pounded so hard I thought my chest was going to blow like a Claymore. I could feel it coming. Worse, Eleanor was going to see it. If Danny hadn’t been standing in my way just then, I’d have just had my smoke and came back after I’d settled down.

But the son of a bitch was in my way.

I’m not proud of what happened next. It was like I was watching it happen from the outside, all distant and hazy. When everything came back into focus, I had Danny against the wall, my forearm against his throat. His cup spilled by the door. Light tan drips spattered everywhere. I felt his Adam’s apple move. I hadn’t seen terror like that since Khe Sahn.

I heard Eleanor explode. “William Archibald Stevens, you let go of him!” I whipped my head around, expecting to see her scowling and wagging her finger. She was still laying there, her chest rising and falling from the ventilator forcing her body to live. I backed away. Danny stepped away from the wall. He tugged at his collar. How the hell had we gotten here?

I crushed my eyelids shut and hung my head. “I’m sorry. I’m just… I don’t know what to say.” I wiped at my tears. More than ever, I wanted to go crawl under a rock.

“I get it.”

My eyes blew open and burned holes in him. “Do you?”

“Yes. I do.”

“I’ve been married to that woman longer than you’ve been sucking oxygen, son.” I glanced at his hand and lowered my voice to a whisper. “I don’t see any ring on your finger, so you’d best shut your fuckin’ mouth about shit you don’t understand.”

I’m not sure whether it was his silence or the sound of the ventilator, but whatever it was, I couldn’t take it. His eyes were glistening. His jaw was quivering. He looked like he was about to scream or cry or both. He shifted his jaw, grinding his teeth like he was chewing on what he was about to say. Maybe wondering if it was worth pissing me off again. He squared his shoulders and took another step toward me. When his eyes locked on mine, I saw blue-gray steel looking back. Something gripped my insides. I don’t know why, but I felt the need to stand up a little straighter.

I think that was the first time I ever really saw Danny Webber. The man in front of me had been to hell and back—it was goddamned eerie. When he spoke, his voice sounded like rocks scraping together.

“Her name was Sarah.”

My eyes must have been the size of hubcaps.

“I… I didn’t— ”

“We married on 17 June 2006. I deployed four months later.”

I felt like he’d just punched me in the gut.

“When I kissed her goodbye…” His voice trembled. “It was the last kiss I ever gave her.”

I dropped into my chair. I felt sick.

“I never knew that, Danny. Any of it.”

He shook his head. “I don’t talk about it. To anybody. It’s a chapter in my life that’s just better off buried.”

The only words I could put together felt stupid when they came out of my mouth: “What happened?”

When he sat back down, I got the sense we were heading into I-could-tell-you-but-then-I’d-have-to-kill-you territory y.

“Outside of my shipmates, only one other person knows what I’m about to tell you.”

He must have seen the question.

“No, Eleanor doesn’t know.”

I wasn’t sure how to take that. Honored that he trusted me? Worried that he was going to tell me some blood-curdling secret? Either way, Danny Webber was not the man I thought he was.

“It was a Tuesday. The Ike was underway in the Persian Gulf, and I was in my stateroom for the night when somebody knocked on the hatch. Spaghetti had ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ playing on this cheesy boom box he’d scrounged.” Danny bent his naked ring finger with his thumb until the knuckle cracked. “Part of my duty as chaplain was notifying sailors of family deaths. I’d done it dozens of times over the years. I figured this was another one.”

I watched his eyes drift and stare into space.

“You know, I’ve had grown men collapse in my arms and cry like babies. I’ve seen them double over and dump their guts, then fall down in their own vomit howling like dying animals.”

He rolled up his sleeve and showed me a lumpy worm of a scar that ran across the meat of his forearm, cutting his clipper ship tattoo clean in half.

“Got this from a gyrene after he found out his wife and baby burned to death in a fire. Eleven stitches. You try to be supportive. You tell them you’re sorry for their loss. You let ‘em hug your neck and cuss you out. You do everything you can to walk them through it, but the whole time, somewhere in the back of your mind, you’re thinking you’re glad it’s them and not you.” He blew out a long, quivering breath. “Drunk driver. They had to use the Jaws of Life to get her out. She was medevacked to Riverside, but…”

“She didn’t make it?”

Hearing my own voice felt like I’d just puked on myself. Danny shook his head. A tear dripped down his cheek. He was rocking slowly, rubbing his palms on his thighs. A couple times, I thought he might say something more. He glanced at the mess I’d made, and finally, he blew out a sharp sigh and stood. He yanked a fistful of paper towels out of the wall dispenser and wiped up the spattered coffee. Every once in a while, he looked in my direction, bit his lip, shook his head and went back to wiping. I got the feeling he was arguing with himself. Maybe he was regretting telling me.

I leaned forward. “Something’s on your mind, son. Best way to cure a sick belly is to just puke and get it over with.”

Danny looked at me with an expression that said he just might. He stopped wiping and stuffed the soggy towels into the cup. He stood, leaned against the wall and kneaded at his temples.

“I wasn’t going to come up here tonight. We haven’t exactly seen eye to eye over the years. The fact of the matter is…” His gaze retreated into the ceiling and hung there. When he found me again, his shoulders bobbed in a half-hearted chuckle. “The fact of the matter is you scare the hell out of me sometimes.”

I had to look away for a second. “What changed your mind?” When he didn’t answer, I came back to him. I could see his gears turning.

“God, Bill. God changed my mind.”

I rolled my eyes.

“I’m serious. All night I wrestled with this, and I don’t think I slept more than a couple hours. And all day today, too. I’ve been sitting here ever since I came trying to figure out how to do this.”

“Do what? Last rites? Why would you think I’d have a problem with that? Just do it.”

“I am. I mean, I will. But that’s not what I’m talking about,” he said, nodding at Eleanor. When he looked at me again, it was more like he was looking straight through me. A warm shiver ran down my back. “I’m here for you, Bill.”

My heart pounded in my ears. I grabbed at my chest and crumpled my shirt in my fist. Did he know something I didn’t? I remembered old Fred G. Sanford: “Oh, this is the big one! You hear that, Elizabeth?! I’m coming to join you, honey!” Maybe he was the Grim Reaper, after all.

“I mean God has a message he wants me to give you.”

So that’s what this was all about. Corner the grumpy old bastard when he’s down and confront him with the error of his ways. Drag his ass kicking and screaming onto the straight and narrow whether he likes it or not. I’d heard all I was willing to. I pointed toward the door. “It’s time for you to go, preacher. I don’t care to hear anything he has to say to me.” I jabbed my finger at the ceiling. “If he’s so concerned about me, then why the hell is my Eleanor laying there? Why is my baby girl buried? Why?! Huh? WHY?! You answer me that, and maybe we can talk. Until then, get the fuck out.”

Danny stepped toward me like he was ready to fight. I was ready to oblige.

“Not until I do what I came to do.”

I planted my feet, set my jaw and coiled my fist into a sledgehammer. He stepped into me and gave me a stiff shake. His voice was almost coming apart.

“Bill, this is what God wants to tell you.”

He threw his arms around me and pulled me into a bear hug. I felt swallowed in his arms, just like when my dad—God rest him—hugged me when I was a kid. He buried his face in my neck. He started bawling so hard I thought he might throw up. I gave in. I wrapped my arms around him, too. Something broke. I can’t explain it. My bottom lip trembled. My chest heaved. I fought against the break I felt coming, but everything in me gave way and I collapsed.

It was like stepping out of the cold shadows and into the sun on a fall day. I felt warm. Clean. Kind of like you’ve been working your whole life and nobody ever noticed before, and then the President shows up and you’re the only guy in the world that matters.

He placed his hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eye. “Listen to me, Bill. There is a whole lot of stuff in this world that God isn’t happy about. Rain falls on everybody.”

He must have seen my confusion. “What I mean is bad things happen.” He gestured toward Eleanor. “And sometimes they happen to good people. I don’t know why. I don’t know that anybody does.”

I wiped my face on my sleeve.

“What is that supposed to do for me?”

Danny stuffed his hands into his pockets. He wandered to the window and looked into the night. “If you had the answer, what would that do for you? What would it change?”

I rolled his question around, looking for some angle I could argue. “Nothing,” I admitted. “But maybe I’d feel more at peace.”

He glanced at me over his shoulder. “Bill, you don’t need answers to pointless questions to find peace.”

“No?”

He turned around and smiled. “God just told you everything you need to know.”

I looked up at the ceiling and sniffled back my tears. “If you really needed to rattle my cage, did it have to be a fuckin’ Navy man?”

Danny smirked. “You do realize that the Marines are a department of the navy.”

I nodded. “The men’s department.” Ω

Christopher Williams

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Filed under Fall 2016, Fiction 2016

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