Letters From the Front
By Marcia Calhoun Forecki
“It‘s the police, sir. Open the door, please.”
Marcus Lightner stood to the side of his front door. He reached across the jamb, unlocked the dead bolt. He turned the door knob, and jumped back. The officer stood outside, running his hand over the surface of the door.
“Is this the door you say was shot?” the officer asked.
“He shot the laser aiming thing right through the door.”
“The red laser dot they use to aim high powered weapons. I saw it right here.”
Marcus indicated the closet door, directly opposite the front door. “If the sniper had rung the bell, and I had answered, I would have took one right through the cranium.”
“Are you alone, here?”
“Is there anyone you can call. A son or daughter, maybe?”
“Are you ordering me to evacuate?”
“If you give me the number, I can call for you.”
“There was someone in front of my house.”
“On the sidewalk. Blue pants, white shirt, white shoes, baseball hat, clean shaven.”
“Was he running?”
“Could have been. Did you see him?”
“Let’s step inside, sir. Can you get me that phone number, please.”
“That door’s solid oak, but it won’t stop an automatic weapon. I know weapons. I’m a veteran, you see.”
“Yes, Mr. Lightner. I remember you told me that on the other times I was here. Do you remember meeting me before? I‘m Officer Presser.”
“No. I might know your grandfather, but you don’t look familiar.”
Officer Presser followed Marcus into the kitchen. Marcus poured two cups of coffee, and the officer made a call on his cell.
Before their cups were drained, a car pulled into the driveway. Marcus listened for the short honk of the car being locked.
“That’s our signal,” he told Officer Presser.
Marcus opened the front door for his son, Neil, and returned to the living room. Officer Presser was sitting in the high backed brocade side chair, drinking coffee. It had been Marcus’s wife’s chair. The touch of her arms on its arms had worn the flowers to where they looked out of focus. Anyone except a police officer would have been asked to choose another seat. Officer Presser finished his coffee and stood when Neil climbed the stairs into the living room.
“Are you all right, Dad?”
“Your father is concerned that he is in danger here. Maybe you could talk about that with him.”
“Sure. What’s up?”
“I’ll let your dad explain. Mr. Lightner, I’ll drive around the block before I go.”
“All right,” Marcus whispered. He slumped into a corner of the sofa. His eyes filled with tears.
“Hey Dad, any more coffee? Let me get a cup and we’ll talk.”
Neil walked his father to the front door. He showed his father the peephole, and explained, again, how the morning sun came through the lens and reflected on the coat closet door. The house was a split level. One entered onto a landing and walked up steps to the left into the living room, or down steps to the right to the garage and basement. There was a coat closet directly opposite the front door.
“Your mother used to hang a wreath on the door. If she wanted to look through the peephole, she pushed it aside,” Marcus said.
“I remember. Without the wreath, the light comes through the lens of the peephole and reflects on the closet door. That’s what you’ve been seeing in the morning. See, it’s gone now because the sun has risen high enough it doesn’t shine through the hole,” Neil explained.
“I think the light scared your mother, a little. That’s probably why she hung the wreaths on the inside instead of the outside of the door.”
Marcus hung his head. He clasped the newel post with gnarled fingers and pulled himself up into the kitchen. He poured coffee into his empty cup, and stared at the dark liquid. He felt foolish and ancient. He stared into his coffee. A tear fell into the cup and made a little plop sound. Marcus flushed with embarrassment when he realized his son was right behind him, and saw the falling tear.
“I’m just useless since your mother died,” he said softly.
“Not at all. Just a little confused, at times.”
“When will I see her again?” Marcus implored. He looked into the eyes of his son and saw her eyes. Neil had his mother’s cheekbones and her green eyes, ringed in gold. Sometimes it was torture to look at his son’s face. Marcus could hate his son because he got to carry a part of his mother inside him forever, that he could see her whenever he looked in the mirror. More often, Marcus craved to see his son, which humiliated and confused him. So, Marcus remained alone, determined to stay strong for her, until she returned.
“I have an idea?” said Neil. “Let’s look in the basement. Mom had a bunch of wreaths for the door. Remember, she changed them with the seasons. You can pick one out and we’ll hang it on the door.”
“No,” Marcus said.
“Come on. I’d like to see the door decorated again.”
“I’ll do it myself, later.”
Marcus did not want Neil to know that he spent hours in the basement among his wife’s things. They were scattered around the laundry room, even on his work bench. Her clothes, her cookbooks, her crafts; all things Neil and his wife had worked so hard to pack and label in plastic totes and shelve like drawers in a morgue.
“Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I’m picking you up after work, remember? Tomorrow is Friday and you’re coming to dinner at my house, with my family. Your grandkids.”
“Sure. I remember,” said Marcus. Now, he wanted Neil gone.
“What is your plan for the day?” Neil asked. A psychiatrist suggested that early stage dementia patients should have a plan for each day. Neil read it in an article. He asked his father every morning when he called or stopped by on the way to work, what his plan was.
“Cut the grass. Mulch Ruth’s roses, I guess.”
“Do you have something for lunch?”
“I’ll make a sandwich. I’ve got some roast beef left that your wife sent over.”
Neil felt relieved. He had brought Marcus home with leftovers from Sunday dinner at his house. This was Thursday, and he still remembered. He would be all right for another day, Neil hoped.
“I’m leaving now, Dad. I’ll call you tonight.”
“Why?” Marcus really could not understand why a call was necessary so soon after a visit.
“To make sure everything is okay, and because you’re my dad.”
After Neil left, Marcus spent more time than necessary cleaning the coffee maker and wiping down the kitchen countertops. He mowed the back yard and then went back over it to mulch the clippings. He raked up the clippings and put them in a metal garbage can near the garage. He had cut out the bottom of the garbage can, and found an extra lid. He put the grass and leaves he had raked up into the garbage can. Then, he flipped it over, took off the bottom lid and extracted a few hands full of the compost. He mixed the decayed grass with some plant food, and laid the mixture around the rose bushes.
After taking care of the roses, Marcus cleaned and oiled the lawn mower blades. He swept the flagstones between the rose bushes and pulled off the dead petals. He cut two blossoms and carried them into the house. He put them into a silver Revere bowl filled with water. It had been Ruth’s favorite way to display her roses. Marcus set the bowl on the dining room table and made a sandwich for his lunch.
Marcus stared at the rose in the silver bowl in front of him. He thought of his wife, and tears fell onto the paper napkin in his lap. The drops grew into perfect circles on the napkin. Marcus watched the circles grow, fascinated, for who knows how long.
Marcus took a small tablet of paper from the top dresser draw in the bedroom. He found a pen in a mug on the night stand. “World’s Greatest Grandpa” the mug declared. Marcus carried his writing equipment to the table on the patio in the back yard. He inhaled the fragrance of the cut grass. It reminded him of a girl’s hair, freshly rinsed with rain water. Marcus opened the writing tablet and started a letter to a girl who lifted scarlet cheeks from her rose bushes and blew sweet breath on strawberry curls stuck to her sweaty forehead.
I don’t want you to be upset, but I feel I have to put down some lines about what happened here. We have to face the possibility that I might not make it home, and I want the truth to be told, at least about what I did on the beach that day.
They teamed me up with Slattery, a skinny kid from Arkansas or Alabama. He had this crew cut of carrot orange hair, thick as moss. The guys razed him about being so skinny that his hair looked like an eraser on top of a pencil. Good man, though. We were both carrying the big 30 Cals. We were supposed to fire rounds at the top of the chalk cliffs where the Germans had set up machine guns, while the other guys ran off the landing craft up to the beach. So, there we were, standing in the ocean before the gate of the landing craft was even down so the men could run up on the beach. Half of them were puking over the sides, still, when me and Slattery jumped over the side and took our position. We were to fire on the pillboxes up on the cliffs over Omaha beach. Inside the pill boxes were German machine gunners. A regular rifle was no use against those concrete boxes, so we had to take them out with the 30 Cas, and that’s what me and Slattery were trying to do while standing in freezing waves that came near to pushing us over. Slattery pointed to a flash on top of the cliff. I had seen it, too. I got off quite a few rounds. The men in the boat ran through the water under my fire and onto the beach. Then, I saw a flash on the barrel right in front of my face. It was the spark of metal on metal. That weapon jumped out of my hands and into the ocean. I wasn’t hit and neither was Slattery, not then. Well, that ended our mission, so we crouched down and ran toward the beach. We joined the mob running from the other boats.
Imagine, dear Ruth, an inch to the left or the right, and a Nazi bullet would have gone right through my heart. When a man is surrounded by death, he can’t think too long about who is spared or why. The next battle is a new roll of the dice. Someone safe today can roll craps tomorrow. If I am allowed to return to you, I ask only that you let me lock this war away and continue our life together, so cruelly interrupted by unforeseeable chance.
Your loving husband,
P.S. I saw the most lovely and sad sight yesterday. We were marching through a bombed out village here in Belgium. This one house had been flattened, but some of the flowers in the garden were still there. They were those little white rose moss plants, like you planted up close to the house. Well, there were drops of blood on those tiny white flowers. I pray whoever lived there made it out alive.
Marcus laid down the pen and stretched the fingers of his right hand against the palm of his left. Of all the aches that had invaded his body, it was in his hands they troubled him most. Holding a pen was excruciating, sometimes.
Neil kept pushing him to get a computer and use the e-mails, but what a waste of money. A big machine just to write a few letters? Marcus picked up free pens at doctors’ offices, the V.A. and from mechanics who serviced his car. The house was full of them. And, Ruth had squirreled away enough note pads to write out an encyclopedia. Letters to loved ones should be written by hand, Marcus believed. The ache was part of the effort, for someone he truly loved.
The afternoon sun was peeking under the patio cover. Soon it would be in his eyes. Marcus moved around the table to a seat facing away from the roses. He considered the rock wall he built in the southeast corner of the yard. He had brought in fill dirt and built a terraced perennial garden of hollyhocks and fox gloves backing up purple dragons, yellow Alyssum and snow-in-summers. In the long shadows of afternoon, the little walled garden reminded him of Belgium, and the flowers that nestled up to the old stone cottages.
Marcus picked up his pen and wrote again, to the girl who wove sweet clover into her braids and wore a white apron, and made him laugh when he thought his happiness had been suffocated by fear.
I think so much about our last time together that I believe I may have distorted it out of all proportion in my mind. Was the sun exceptionally bright, the air fragrant with morning glories, and time held at a complete stop? That’s how I remember it. Marching every day, toward the finish of this war, I saw so much misery on either side of the roads we traveled through Belgium and on into France. People walking with determination, but no destination. They carried every possession they had left in a pack or on a cart. They either looked down at the ground, or straight ahead. It was impossible for me to tell if they were leaving or returning to their homes. Their expressions were the same, either way. Was it wrong for me to feel happy in the presence of such sorrow?
Marie, when a man is at war, all he thinks about is going home. He longs for the familiar, the quiet, the unconditional love of his family. I was no different. I dreamed about my wife, our home, and the life we had planned for ourselves before that war took me away from what now seems an easy love and brought me to you.
I still carry the picture I took of you, with your dark curls blown around your face, your hands shoved into your apron pockets. You hid your hands because you thought were ruined by farm work, but they felt like silk against mine when you let me hold them.
All I wanted in those June days was to be home. Now, alone in the house I dreamed about every time I closed my eyes – yes, even lying next to you – I think more and more of you. Did you find another man to love you? Did you raise children in the country or move back to the city? Are you sitting in a garden now, looking at a stone walled flower garden? Do you ever think, in the sleepless hours, of an American who loved you when love was so urgent and so fragile.
PFC Marcus Lightner, 299th Combat Engineer Battalion
Marcus folded his letters. He covered them with his arms and laid his head upon his arms. He dozed without dreaming. When dusk covered him, Marcus lifted his head and wondered whose roses they were on which the sun’s last rays fell so softly.
Marcia Calhoun Forecki is a native of Kansas City, Missouri and has been writing for as long as she can remember. Her first book, Speak To Me, a nonfiction account of her son’s deafness, was published by Gallaudet University Press and won a Book Award from the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. Her middle grade novel, Better Than Magic, was self-published in 2008. Marcia has published short stories in the Bellevue Literary Journal, Kaleidoscope, Hearing Health, and Fine Lines literary journal. Her story “Gift of the Spanish Lady” was nominated for a Pushcart. A collection of her stories was published by Write Life Publishing, entitled Hurricane Blues and Other Stories. A novel, Blood of the White Bear, written in collaboration with award-winning screenwriter and director Gerald Schnitzer and published by Write Life Publishing, will be launched in the winter of 2013. Marcia is currently working on a novel set in Clay County, Missouri during the Civil War. Letters from the Front was originally published in Fine Lines Literary Journal.