“But we’re a retirement community!” Ursula whined. Doris wheeled her tea-tray of canalés and Darjeeling to their usual courtyard table. “Why would he keep hanging around?” She helped unload brunch from the cart as Doris took a seat next to Marnie, completing their trifecta.
“Why’re you complaining?” Marnie cupped her hand under an inaugural bite. “Having a young man around is nice every so often.” She shimmied with a smile as Doris poured them tea.
“Because it’s strange!” Ursula took her cup with a thankful smile before snapping her face back to tight consternation. Doris shook her head, trying not to laugh. Yes, it was a retirement community, but full of veterans and, far scarier, the wives supporting them.
It was about The Young Man again. He wasn’t remarkably tall or handsome with his outdated black mullet and military fatigues. He looked like he’d always stepped out from the jeep of a military movie set. His steps, like him, were always quiet despite his duty boots. The most anyone heard him saw was niceties wishing them well before returning to whatever rounds he was making.
He wasn’t a chaplain, far as anyone knew. He was just doing his duty, making sure no one needed anything and offering a quick helping hand when needed. For a community of older military veterans who’d faced growing ridicule for sacrifice in service, a pleasant understanding young face was welcome.
“Isn’t it unsettling, Doris?” Doris looked up from her tea, lost in thought. She’d missed Ursula’s latest tirade of concern.
“See?” Marnie said, reaching for another canalé. “Doris isn’t the least bit concerned! He’s just soft-footed.” She took another bite as Ursula puffed her cheeks, pouting. “Perhaps it was specialized training…”
“No!” Ursula said. “No no! None of your fancy imaginings! This is reality!”
“Could be like Jim around the corner,” Marnie continued. “Special forces-”
“Jim stomps like he’s got clogs!” Ursula said.
Doris couldn’t resist. Ursula wouldn’t appreciate it, but they were so entertaining! They’d been like this since their factory days while the men were deployed overseas. Decades later, her friends still made her laugh like when she was twenty.
“It’s not funny!” Ursula said. “I LIVE NEXT DOOR!” Marnie laughed too, passing another pastry and refilling Ursula’s cup like men would shots of whiskey Ursula pouted, narrow eyes glaring.
“If it weren’t for Doris’ baking, I swear, I wouldn’t bother anymore!” She popped the treat in her mouth like a hamster. It was too big for single bites, but Ursula was already too far, trying to chew through impulsivity.
“Oh, calm down,” Doris said. “He’s fine. Saw him talking with Donnie Calloway just last week even.”
“Dementia Donny?” Marnie said. The friends shot a glare as she took another oblivious bite.
“His aide,” Doris said, “says he thinks the young man is his old commanding officer come to visit.” She took a somber sip from her cup. “How sad, losing all that time…”
“Makes for easy targets,” Ursula said. “How would Donnie know, right?”
“Don’t start,” Doris said, upright finger firm in the air. “He’s a fine young man. Don’t go starting rumors.” She took a bite. “That’s Marnie’s job.” The women laughed, Marnie especially.
“Ya know,” Marnie started between swigs of tea. “Didn’t someone say he was leaving Bethany Forger’s door with a young lady not long ago?”
“Someone said it looked like it could’ve been her granddaughter the way she’d inherited those gold curls,” Ursula said.
“And he did seem awful happy, by all accounts, leaving hand-in-hand with her.”
“By all account?” Doris said. “You mean Marjorie Griffin snooping around everybody’s business?”
“She’d be the one to know,” Marnie said. Doris shook her head and sipped.
“Probably they’re dating,” Doris said. “Case closed.”
“Hardly!” Marnie gasped.
“Yeah!” Ursula said. “Keep going, Marn.” For all her complaining, she never stopped trailing Marnie’s tall tales.
“Wasn’t that around the time she passed?” Marnie continued.
“They found her a few days later!” Ursula said. “Died in her chair watching Lifetime romance movies.”
“So suspicious,” Marnie said from behind the rim of her cup. Doris pulled the tray of canalés as they reached for more.
“Don’t go making accusations against someone who’s been nothing but good,” she said. The biddies stared at each other before nodding an apology for the return of the day’s signature treats. “That’s better.”
But implications weighed on her long after brunch ended. Their community was full of vulnerable individuals. Doris’ husband worked himself silly after retiring from service to make the property a viable home for the men he’d served with struggling to stay afloat. In time, the state funded an expansion. It’d been his greatest pride to care for servicemen and women. “No one is forgotten,” he’d said. “We’ll always carry our own out.”
She wondered what her late husband would think of the young man blowing through like evening wind on her jacket. Her grocery bags seemed heavier, tugging her aching arms. She was tired despite early evening having just lost its glow. Perhaps she was coming down with something again.
She passed through the courtyard with ingredients for the next brunch as she approached the sparse memorial board for Barney Schmidt. He hadn’t availed himself towards anyone in life. Her own husband, who’d served with him, advised she maintain distance. But it’s in poor taste to speak ill of the dead. But she was surprised to see a mourner squatting with hand over bearded mouth.
She recognized the young man, eyes glistening in rising moonlight. Perhaps he’d known Barney in life. She was ashamed to admit she hadn’t expected anyone who knew him mourned the loss of the old goat. They’d found a rare photo of Barney smiling for the board. It looked perverse and unsettling on his face.
Noticing her, he stood, wiping eyes before drying hands on his pants and turned to leave. How could someone suspect a man mourning a toad like Barney would prey on anyone? She didn’t realize the words calling from her mouth, but she was relieved to see him stop. Her husband wouldn’t have ignored his grief. Neither would she.
“Yeah,” he admitted. “I knew Barney.” His voice was worn, likely from years of smoking given the lighter on his belt. Or barking orders, given his posture. He wasn’t tall, but strong shoulders looked like the bore the weight of lifetimes of gut-calls and hard choices. The kind her husband made when he assumed command in the worst manner possible.
“Was he always so…” She curated words he already knew.
“Not at first,” he said. “But it creeps up fast.” His chest filled and fell, silenced by leaves in evening breeze.
“My husband,” she said, “kept telling me to keep my distance. I always wondered-“
“Don’t,” he said. “He was in Hell. It broke him. He never worked his way back out.” Air dewed with promises of rain. “He did what he had to. Might’ve been wrong, but he lived and so did his brothers. Whether they approved or…” He rubbed tired eyes.
She thought back to Marnie and Ursula with all their suspicions and rumors. This man, eyes red over the memorial of a man no one lost sleep over, was either Oscar-worthy or genuine. She loved her friends, but they were absolute dafties.
“Did you work with Barney?” she asked. “An aide of some sort?”
He sighed. “Of a sort.” His gaze fell back on the face of a man only he missed. “I’d hoped to bring him back around.” He smirked. “He was actually really funny once.” Eyes drooped as smile faded. “But he’s gone somewhere I can’t follow this time. Maybe that’s why I never reached him. He was always there and now…”
She looked at Barney’s snide photo, trying to imagine him as funny or endearing. Even her husband couldn’t stand him. But there was the young man, grieving like an old friend. He couldn’t have been born until long after Barney came home a lifetime ago. But his stiff lip and squared shoulders betrayed how little time mattered. If he could hurt this deep, then there must’ve been good in Barney once.
Doris kneeled, putting down her bag to steeple her hands if for no reason than sentiment. No one else might, but for whatever good it might do, she prayed for Barney. For his life of suffering and hardship to mean something. For the Lord to forgive his deeds, whatever they were, so he could be spared purgatory’s refining flames. For those left in the world like the young man mourning him. It seemed silly, but her husband had been full of silly notions. Why not indulge one more? He’d have done it if he was there, so she would in his place.
It only took a moment, insignificant to her, but the young man’s eyes went wide with mouth agape. He stared into her eyes, tears welling. His arms were corded steel cable, looking like they could rend trees. But draped around her, they were gentle and warm. He held her tight, muffling sobs in her shoulder. Just like her husband had each time they’d saved another soldier from the streets and wards, bringing them home like he’d promised.
“Thank you,” he whispered through choked sobs. “You have no idea how much that means to me. To all of us.”
She wanted to ask, but it wasn’t the time. She had the sense she needed to be home. As if in sync, the man’s arms unfurled, his genuine smile bright as the sun.
“I gotta go, but if you ever need anything,” he said handing over her bag, “just gimme a holler. I’ll come running.” With that, he jogged off, almost skipping.
Doris made the barest of sense of what happened. Her chest felt tight. It’d been a long strange day. The bag felt heavier in weak arms. She’d sort it out once she got in the door, but she’d have to find the key through fuzz in her vision.
The ground caught her as she slumped against her door. The pain grew into her neck and jaw. Panted breaths labored as she thought what a shame it was wasting food on the ground. She missed her husband. Maybe she’d follow his lead home this time.
She felt hands in hers. Vision failed, but she smiled all the same. Whoever they were, they were tender and warm. It’d be okay. It’s not so bad. She’d had a good run, accepting if it was her turn. She missed him something fierce.
In the dark, she heard the hum of light and bells. They didn’t sound like she’d expected, almost beeping. An EKG, she recognized, from years before when her husband fought against leaving her behind. She’d have to apologize for missing the train this time, promising she’d make it eventually.
She felt the weight of Ursula slumped on her hospital gurney and the sound of a page turning from Marnie in the chair next to her. It made sense. They’d survived widowhood’s descent, reaffirming each time the unwavering love carrying them through darkest hours. It’d always be them, even to the last.
Marnie’s composure shattered in spastic tears and hugging, desperate to call nurses as Ursula sprang up, suspecting the worst. Nurses must’ve expected the same as a trio ran in. Doris’ weak hands reached for friends’ arms, huddling in tears. It felt like home. It felt like her husband was outside waiting his turn. Again, he’d have to wait.
They’d stayed the night, refusing to leave the waiting room until they could enter that morning. It was by chance the ladies found her. The young man had asked where Doris was, hoping to get some photos for a memorial, and she’d hustled to make sure Doris wasn’t home alone when he came by. Marnie said he’d waved at her with a wink and she’d gotten the urge to gush about his handsome smile with Doris. The doctor explained if she’d been inside, behind locked door, no one might’ve found her until it was too late.
It was a few days before she returned home. She admired the photos through rays of sun illuminating dancing motes. A memorial, he’d said… If she hadn’t stopped at Barney’s that night, she might’ve made it through that door a few minutes too soon. She’d resolved to thank him, even if it’s just been coincidence. A few, it seemed. As she thought back on it. What was it her husband said? “God hides in coincidence,” or something like that?
She chuckled at herself. Nostalgia has a funny way of playing with us. All the same, she eyed the photos of him, thinking of the albums more packed away. She couldn’t hold him, but she could still see a lifetime spent together. It’d do for now.
She opened the largest, from his military day when they’d taken the plunge. He’d wanted something to come home to, giving him strength to persevere. She’d called him overly sentimental, but married him all the same. Now, seeing their old memories, she appreciated his sentimentality.
One caught her eye. It was early in the war, before he’d assumed command in the field. It was the worst promotion he’d ever received, but his men needed him. She remembered the droplets staining his old letters.
She saw two men, her husband and Donnie Calloway, the senile gentleman down the way who’d been laughing with the young man, sitting around a table of playing cards. Behind them was a strong-shouldered young man in white t-shirt, dog tags dangling on strong chest. His mullet didn’t look so dated and she wondered how he’d gotten away with it. She saw his arms, muscled and sinewy, planting hands on their shoulders like a father’s on sons. His smile was bright and genuine as the…
She took it out, investigating closer. The writing on the back listed the names of her husband and Donnie with one Seamus “Sheepdog” McGowan, marked KIA. A message, in her husbands handwriting, read: You earned your rest. I’ll take care of Bethany. I promise, I’ll get our men home.