Beth was sitting out on the front porch, glass of wine in her hand, and noisily eating salted pretzels right out of the bag. Barefoot, her blond hair twisted into a bun atop her head, she looked up at the sky, thinking about her husband. Jimmy was somewhere on the blazingly hot plains of Helmland Province in Afghanistan. It had been a few weeks since they had last spoken. Dogs had barked in the distance and she could hear the muted voices of his men, sprinkled with laughter. Jimmy was a cheerful guy, always ready with a joke. “Did you hear the one about….”
“Stop worrying,” she told herself futilely. She knew that if he were to die in an IED explosion or from heatstroke – his buddy Adam had burned up in 106-degree weather – she would not be too proud to ask his parents for help. They lived nearby in the same town of Feasterville. When she and Jimmy moved into the little town outside Philadelphia they jokingly referred to it as “Festerville.” Their son Kyle copied his parents and still called it by its obnoxious nickname.
The wine soothed her nerves and helped her stop thinking about the only man she had ever loved. The red wine turned her lips a bright red. Kyle was concerned about her.
“Ma!” he would say, when he came home from school. “You’re drunk!” Then bravely he would add, “Dad would be mad at you!”
“Oh, you’re just darn silly, kid!” she would answer.
Kyle loved the house where they lived. He would approach their blue rancher with near reverence. He loved seeing it from afar. It was so pretty with its bright white shutters.
“Mom,” he said. “Let’s not move again. This is my favorite house ever!”
“I’m with you there, Kylie! I cannot stand moving, either!”
One day after school, he ran up the steps of the front porch and grabbed the baseball bat they kept in the corner. He took a couple of swings – Mr. Malone, the coach, told him he was getting real good and might become a starter – then put down the bat and picked up the softball, with its yellow stitching. Why it was called a softball he had no idea. It was as hard as a rock. But unlike a rock, you could take it apart, which he did once, peeling it with a kitchen steak knife. It was stuffed with something like rubber bands and stunk like a dead fish. He barely remembered playing softball in the huge back yard of the trailer park with his dad.
Putting down his baseball mitt, he attempted to walk in the front door. It was locked. How strange! There were two other doors. He climbed up the steps to the side door. That’s where his parents kept the cooler of cold drinks in the summer. Like now. He could help himself to a Coke or bottled water anytime he wanted. When he found out that door was locked, too, he kicked the cooler in frustration. He ran to the back door, passing the swing set in the far back yard, he’d used when he was younger. Now he was big, all of 10 years old, and it wasn’t much fun anymore.
The back door swung right open, letting him into the kitchen. His mom was sitting at the table, this time chugging from a bottle of wine, which had spilled down her yellow dress.
With her was Mr. Scott, one of their neighbors.
“Mom!” he yelled.
“Oh, leave me alone!” she cried. “What do you know. You’re only a kid.”
“Beth,” said Mr. Scott. “Don’t talk to your boy like that. He’s a good kid.”
Kyle was terribly hungry, but he ran out the back door, yelling, “I hate you, I hate you, Mom, and I’m never coming back.”
Like any other kid, he was an explorer and knew every feature of the terrain of Penn Valley Terrace Mobile Home Park. He had few friends and didn’t mind. They would just stand in his way. He liked to be free, like his dad, “the warrior.” When his dad was home two years ago, they would roam the woods in camouflage suits, hunting for deer.
“Son, you must keep perfectly quiet, so you’ll hear them stepping on leaves and cracking twigs as they come through.”
His father had a bow and arrow. On the few occasions when he saw a deer, he would tap Kyle on the shoulder and draw back the bow. Kyle wasn’t old enough yet to use it. He lacked the musculature of his father.
Kyle knew, back then, his dad was going back to war again, so he tried to memorize what he looked like. In the flesh. Not in photos. Dad was a big man, a head taller than Mom, and had short dark hair. You could see his white scalp right through his buzz cut. At night, when Kyle would fall asleep, he would feel his own hair, and pretend it was like his dad’s. His hair was blond, like his mom’s, and filled with embarrassing curls, like a girl’s.
He ran as fast as he could and sprinted toward the woods. Immediately, he felt cooling breezes and smelled the little creek in the distance. Then he stood stock still. He thought he saw a doe chewing the bark of a tree. He stared among the cluster of dark trees, blinking and focusing his eyes. Sure enough, he clearly made her out. Her pretty little head was munching the bark from the tree, then delicately chewing off the green leaves. What big eyes she had. “Oh, if only Dad was here,” he thought. He was so proud of himself. Then he remembered his mother. Drunk, as usual. And maybe even fooling around like they did on his favorite TV shows. Disgusting! He could never kiss a girl, though that little Kayla was awfully cute with her twinkly blue eyes.
“We might be twins,” she once said to him at recess. “Kyle and Kayla.” The other kids gathered around. “Kyle and Kayla, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.”
“Oh, stop that,” shouted Kyle. “That’s not fair.” He refused to leave the area, not wanting to be seen as a coward.
“Kayla, come over here,” he said, and led her to the jungle gym.
Quick as a flying squirrel, he climbed to the very top, looped his legs around the cold metal bar, and hung like a monkey. He loved the feeling of being upside down. It was a whole different world. Sometimes in the living room, he would lie on the red leather couch, his body sticking to it in the heat, and let his sweaty head touch the floor as he watched the ceiling. It seemed like a new land straight out of Star Trek. There were lacy cobwebs that looked like the kitchen curtains and a tiny spider or two tiptoeing across the white plains that were the ceiling.
Kyle heard a loud noise. With a sudden leap, the doe ran away. How had she known he was there? Smell, his dad had told him. He sniffed his forearm. It was sweaty and filled with tiny blond hairs. His mother smelled different than he did. She smelled from wine and red lipstick and waffles and syrup she would make for breakfast. He missed her already. And knew it was almost time to go home.
He walked slowly over to the creek. Staring down, he found a school of iridescent minnows and those weird water spiders sashaying across the still water. His dad had shown him a trick. He found a huge green maple leaf. He loved the way it looked like a hand. He studied the waxy surface to make sure it was nice and clean with no bugs or bumps on it, wiped it on his blue jeans, folded it into four parts, making a cup, and dunked it into the clear water. Licking his lips, he took a small sip, and then a larger one. He did this six times until his thirst had disappeared. He stood there a moment and pretended his dad, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, was standing beside him.
He walked slowly home, head down. How, he wondered, could he help his mom. The sun was setting on their block, painting an orange and purple picture behind each house. Kyle silently named the occupants of each house. The O’Rileys; the Reimers; the Scotts; the Phillips with their fiercely barking white dog, Monty; the Myers – Dad, Mom and himself – and the Amos family with the identical twin girls.
His mother was standing out on the porch.
“Kyle!” she cried. “I was so worried about you! I was frantic and was going to call the police!”
She grabbed him by the shoulders, pulled him to her, and gave him a huge hug.
“I saw a doe, munching on the bark of a tree,” he said softly.
“You did!” she said. She was listening. Actually listening to him.
“I want to show you something, son,” she said, leading him into the kitchen.
She held up a bottle of wine by its neck.
“This,” she said, “this is the last bottle I have and I’m not going to buy anymore. Let’s go out back.”
She carried the bottle outside, like carrying a long-necked goose.
They went out on the patio, which was rimmed with colorful flowers: red and white impatiens; yellow marigolds; tall pink cosmos. She poured the wine in a single line across the soil.
Kyle watched in amazement and then looked up at her, thinking, “Could this really be happening?”
“And you know what, honey?” she said. “We’re going to plant a garden. Just you and me. And when Dad comes home, he’ll have fresh vegetables to eat.”
That night Beth and Kyle sat on the red leather couch, watching television and munching on buttered popcorn. A commercial for a new and violent movie came on, when the announcer broke in and said, “Special announcement.” Beth and her son looked at one another as if it pertained to them.
The NBC announcer said, “The Taliban have conquered Helmland Province in Afghanistan after a six-year battle. Historians tell us this is the worst loss for the allies since the Taliban made its appearance.”
Beth edged around the coffee table and shut off the TV.
“Kyle, this is bad news, very bad news. But we’re not going to worry. We have faith in your daddy.”
She laughed. “I am so glad I threw my wine out. Here’s what we’re going to do, son.”
She walked to the adjacent dining room, where a tall and fancy cabinet nearly reached the ceiling. She opened up the middle drawer, pulled out a cigar box and held it up to Kyle.
“Daddy smokes cigars,” he said. “He’d call them ‘The Bay of Pigs’ cigars.”
“What a good memory you have,” she said.
Inside the box were seed packets. She pulled out one and shook it.
“No better time than now to start our garden,” she said.
And so, throughout the long night, while the moon and stars watched over them, they planted eggplant, Big Boy tomatoes, red leaf lettuce, and Fingerling potatoes.
Beth hummed as she worked, telling Kyle how deep to lay the seeds, and then asking him to tear off the front of the seed packet and half-bury it near each vegetable, so they knew what would finally come up.
Three weeks later, the eggplant, tomatoes, and lettuce were popping up.
“Mom, I’ve never seen anything so beautiful,” he said. His mother smiled and put her arm around him.
“Your daddy will be so proud of us.”
Kyle would check the garden every day after school. As they sat down to dinner, the two of them held hands, and Mom would lead a prayer, “God is good, God is great, and we thank Him for our food.”
Kyle picked up a crunchy yellow taco filled with black beans and lettuce and salsa – “My favorite!” – and took a bite that sent everything scattering all over his plate.
“The problem with tacos,” laughed Beth.
A loud sound interrupted their meal. The knocker on the front door was pounding as if the very door itself would split open.
They both ran to the door.
Two men in uniform stood there on the porch.
“Oh, no,” said Beth.
“May we come in?”
Beth opened the door wide and motioned them into the living room. The piquant smell of salsa swirled around the room.
“Perhaps your son should wait in the other room,” said Officer Brickman. Kyle looked up at his mom with wide eyes.
“Kyle will stay right here. This is about his daddy.” She noticed her voice had begun to shake.
The men explained that Staff Sergeant James H. Myers had suffered what’s called “head trauma.” He was still very much alive but his thinking was altered. And he had various physical problems. Kyle had a vision of living on the white ceiling and crouching up there in the corner.
Staff Sergeant Myers would be sent to the closest veterans’ hospital for intensive treatment and then return home.
“I must write this all down,” said Beth. Kyle ran back into the kitchen and grabbed a pad that read, “U.S. Marine Corps.”
Beth thought of offering the men some coffee but she wanted their stiff and somber bodies out of her house as fast as possible.
“Thank you, gentlemen,” she said as she walked them to the door, shutting it a little louder than she meant.
“It’s not so bad, Kyle,” she said. “He’s not dead. He’s wounded. Bad. Very bad. But we’ll nurse him back to health.”
The trip to the veterans’ hospital was a two-hour drive. Kyle’s grandparents would drive over in their big white van and the four of them would pile in and take the fast highway to the hospital. On the way home from the first visit, he heard Grandma Myers say, “He’s a ghost of his former self.” He wondered what that meant, but he sure knew it wasn’t the same dad he remembers. Every time they walked into the white room, where he sat on a chair with a clock behind him, he seemed not to notice them, but to look right past his wife and son. Beth decided it did no good to visit. In fact, every time Beth visited, she felt like killing herself.
An ambulance brought him home. Kyle was at school when he was escorted by two medics into the home he had left nearly three years ago. Beth, dressed in white summer shorts and a white tank top, showing the outline of her moon-round breasts, led her husband to the dining room table. She couldn’t help but noticing he didn’t look around. She hadn’t kissed him and didn’t want to. It would be like kissing a mummy. In the middle of the table was a huge milky-white bowl that sat on a pedestal and contained two large shiny eggplants, Big Boy tomatoes, and apples and oranges from the market.
The table was set for dinner.
Jimmy picked up a tomato with both hands.
He said slowly, “Tom Tomater,” which is what they jokingly had called them.
He took a big bite – the seeds splashed across his face – and then Beth pushed over the salt from the middle of the table. Jimmy put the tomato on the plate and slowly cut it open, salting it carefully.
When he finished, Beth went over and kissed him on his cheek.
“Kyle will be home soon, darling,” she said. She strode over to the front door where the sun seemed to light Kyle’s way home.
“Here he comes, Jimmy,” Beth said, her voice rising, as she walked out onto the front porch.
“Kyle!” she called. “Guess who’s home from the war?”
Kyle took the porch steps two at a time and raced into the house.
“Dad!” he called. “Dad! I’ve got so much to tell you!”
A whole year passed. Kyle, now 14, had grown nearly as tall as his dad. His blond curls fell around his ears. The girls loved them, especially Eva Marie. A camera crew from 60 Minutes had taken temporary possession of their house for several hours. Kyle, who now journaled in a black and white Meade Composition Book, took notes. “Our house is transformed and looks like a stage set. Bright lights burn my eyes. Signs read ‘Take One, Take Two, Take Three.’ I’m going to be a camera man when I grow up, not a stunt man like I thought when I was little.”
After they left, the producers of 60 minutes kept in touch, telling the family the story was finished, but the broadcast date was uncertain. Then a phone call from a Mr. Weiss said the program would air this Sunday after the football game.
Beth called everyone she knew. Kyle ran around the neighborhood telling the neighbors. Jimmy walked around the house, flexing his arm muscles, and revealing the tattoo of a bald eagle he’d gotten while on leave in Germany.
They kept the sound muted during the football game and finally saw the familiar faces of the 60 Minutes reporters and heard the sound of ticking at 8:20 pm.
Leslie Stahl, the anchorwoman, appeared in a purple jacket, with long dangling earrings.
“From a little town in Pennsylvania, where houses proclaim the American dream, a dream has come true for Staff Sergeant James L. Myers – “Jimmy” to his wife Beth, son Kyle, and friends – a miracle has occurred.”
The camera panned to the dinner table where Beth, Jimmy and Kyle were passing around serving bowls of fried chicken, mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy, and cornmeal encrusted eggplant and tomatoes.
In low voices, the family talked together. The camera then focused on Jimmy, who wore an open-neck blue shirt.
Leslie Stahl asked him, “I understand you applied for several jobs, Jimmy.”
“Seven, to be exact, and was offered a job by all seven.”
His speech was a bit halting and the viewers were rooting for him to successfully finish each sentence.
“I’ve been working for the past month as sous-chef at the Eagle Diner, where I bake our own breads” – he made a “kneading” motion with his hands – and most of the desserts, like this apple pie.” He pointed to the middle of the table where a browned fluted crust sat on a trivet with red, white and blue tiles, like the crown jewel it was.
Then came the ticking of the clock that signaled the end of the interview.
“What a great job they did!” said Beth, who was already in her slippers and pink pajamas.
“Dad, you’re a movie star,” laughed Kyle.
“Sure am,” said Kyle. “Maybe I’ll have my own cooking show like, what’s her name?”
“Julie Child,” said Beth, yawning. “I’m going to bed.”
“Dad, why don’t you stay up with me and we’ll have another piece of pie.”
Ruth Z. Deming has had her poetry published in lit mags including Literary Yard, River Poets, Blue Bonnet Review and JonahMagazine. She lives in Willow Grove, a suburb of Pennsylvania in the US of A.