Dedicated to my uncle, the pain he carried and the friends he left behind.
May they all rest in peace.
“Medic! Medic! Where’s the corpsman?” The shouting was barely audible over the crackle of small arms fire. Ak-47’s barked from the safety of cover while m-16’s growled in response. Splinters of trees and shredded greenery clouded the air as Harris tried desperately to hold the pieces of his friend’s skull together. All of it happened in slow motion. Images became shadowed, pale, like they were taken from an old silent movie. Harris could hear nothing, not even his own desperate cries for help. “Get out of the way,” Harris was suddenly ripped back to the harsh unreality of combat as the corpsman pushed him to the side. Harris shuffled but refused to loosen his grasp from his friend’s head. The corpsman’s calm voice was completely at odds with the insanity unfolding around them. “Let me take a look,” he insisted. The corpsman roughly peeled Harris’s hands away and winced. “Uggghhh! Half his head is gone!” The tone was unmistakable, annoyed that Harris had wasted his time. A tree burst apart just over their left shoulders. The flakes of wood landed on them before the sound of the rounds had reached their ears. Harris growled at the young navy corpsman and moved quickly to wrap his hands around the arrogant boy’s throat. A low thud accompanied the fall of his friend’s corpse to the ground. It was then that the truth had stabbed him through the heart. Harris had tried desperately to keep his friend alive. The blood and brain matter that trickled from his raised hands sent too clear a message. His best friend was gone.
The memory was painful. Vivid, so perfectly forged that merely to unsheathe it meant pain. Little things could draw it out. The smell of wet lumber, freshly cut. Maybe a combination of words or a strange pattern of falling leaves. Try as one might, it was an experience that could not be contained. Like water falling, it would find a path through, no matter how hard you worked to stop it. This time it was a name. The name. Jeremy Harris had not heard the name of George Giocondi for almost thirty years. Nevertheless, the mere mention of George had sent Harris hurtling back in time, back to that awful day so many years ago. Jeremy sat in his old tan recliner, panting so deeply he could smell the coffee on his own breath. Dripping with sweat, he used the sleeve of his plaid shirt to wipe the salty liquid away, just before it entered his eyes. He would have reached for something more appropriate, but he was glued to the television. Katherine Giocondi was right there. She was on television, the sound blaring loudly, compensating for ears that had been exposed to far too many explosions. Jeremy could not believe his eyes or his ears. To his amazement, she had written a book, a best selling book for that matter! The host was leaning forward, in the process of grilling Katherine to gain access to all of the juicy details behind her writing. “So, what inspired you to write your best selling book, Memories?” Jeremy wiped his brow again. He couldn’t help but feel the question was a bit callous. Katherine’s eyes welled with tears as she her answer slipped gently from her lips. “My late husband, George,” her answer was soft, so soft that many of those watching around the country would not have been able to hear her answer. Jeremy could not hear it but he of all people did not need to hear it to know it. All those that watched could see her sorrow. The years of anguish had not left her. Like poorly removed graffiti, no matter how much makeup was used, it could not cover a lifetime of pain. It seemed that even the mere mention of George brought all of the past back to haunt her as it did to Jeremy. She wore the memories of George clearly across her face if one knew how to look, how to see. Every thought of him sat heavily upon her breast as if she was laden down with too many forgotten medals. All of her apparent success as an author brought her no joy, nor did it erase the loss of her beloved husband.
Jeremy used to wonder how things might have been. He would build a world of what ifs in his mind. What if George had come home and he had not. Jeremy used to fantasize about how his own wife’s life might have been different. Maybe, just maybe, Anne would be the world-renowned author. Maybe she would have been rich and never had to worry about the simple things in life as she had for so many years. Anne would never have had to work in that awful restaurant that smelled like stale cigarettes and fryers long overdue for a cleaning. She would have made that trip to Europe she had planned for all those long years, basking in an Aegean sun. Jeremy’s hand instinctively sank to his pocket and rested on an emaciated wallet. So many things he couldn’t give her. So many things she could have had or could have done or might have been. Anne, sweet, wonderful, patient Anne, deserved so much better, so much more out of life. The thoughts of what might have been had haunted Jeremy for as long as he could recall.
Katherine Giocondi had calmed all of Jeremy’s ghosts with the four simple words she had used to describe her inspiration. The agony that stretched across her face as she repeated the words, “My late husband George,” may have awoken all the memories Jeremy had long sought to bury but something was different this time. All the years Jeremy had wished he had died and never came back melted away. Somewhere behind that face of pain and misery was the beauty that once brightened every day of George’s tragically short life. Jeremy struggled to find the face he remembered from his old friend’s pictures. He waded through the mud and the moonless nights, deep in a fighting hole, a poncho stretched overhead and a hand cupping the light of a flashlight, focusing it on the image of a young woman’s picture. Jeremy couldn’t remember a day that passed where George had not shown him a photo of Katherine on the beach. She had a youthful exuberance that was instantly contagious. Her eyes beheld an innocent wonder that captivated even the most disinterested of viewers. Looking at the picture, you could smell the salt air and the hint of a flowery perfume. It was easy to see why George loved her so deeply. Why the two had brought each other so much happiness. It was gone now. Buried or blown away but gone for certain. Jeremy could find none of the youth or innocence within Katherine’s face now. There was no happiness. The mask of misery she wore was thicker than Jeremy’s eyes could hope to penetrate. She seemed a ghost, as if she had died long ago and had not been allowed to pass from this realm. One could linger, but never really live.
As the audience applauded and Katherine took her leave, Jeremy turned the television off and made his way to the kitchen. He poured out the remains of his coffee and leaned on the edge of the sink for several long moments. Eventually, he pulled several sheets of paper from a small drawer in the kitchen and placed them on the table. He returned to the same drawer and shuffled around for several moments until his hand reappeared with a pen. Jeremy sat down and found himself staring at the blank pages as the silence around him became oppressive. He seemed to face off against the paper as a prize fighter might stare down an opponent. The paper did not flinch. His resolve began to quiver. He wasn’t quite sure if this should be done after so many years. The letter should have been written long ago but Jeremy never had the strength. He lacked the courage to tell the story he relived every night in his own personal Hell. How could he begin? What do you say to the widow of a long dead friend? “Forgive me, but I don’t know how to begin,” the words were the hardest he had ever written. Yet, even as he wrote them he could feel the floodgates open. A rush of emotion poured from his hand, his heart and his eyes. His desire to tell the story became more, it became a need. “My name is Jeremy Harris. I knew your husband. He was my friend, and I owe him my life.” He paused for a moment to clear his eyes and returned quickly to his writing in case his resolve might falter.
The letter continued on for pages and pages. Jeremy wrote frantically of all the things he hadn’t told anyone but his wife. The pen scratched across the pages like a juggernaut. Inexorable. Unstoppable. A sharp pain pierced Jeremy’s shoulder at the very spot the small arms fire had ripped through his muscle. His legs began to throb at the thought of shrapnel tearing through them. He remembered the blood. His blood. So much blood. The words that he could think but not say. The shock. The aches began to subside, giving way to a flutter in his stomach. There he was again, born aloft atop George’s broad shoulders. The memory of his friend’s soothing voice brought a fresh bucket of tears streaming down his face. He wrote of the days immediately following. Of the wounds George had suffered as a result of his heroism and their long convalescence in the hospital, then, their return to combat and the unfortunate events that would lead to so much pain. Jeremy feverishly let loose the years of pent up guilt he had felt. The pen’s frenetic dance across the page would not cease until Jeremy had poured out everything he had kept imprisoned in his heart for years.
Jeremy’s mind drifted to his children. He thought of all that George had never seen, never done. George would never stand behind home plate and cheer his son on, never give a daughter away in marriage. He did not have the heart to write what a wonderful father George might have been, if only fate had dealt a different hand. If only fate had taken him instead. Jeremy closed the letter by simply wishing, “I hope that this letter in some small fashion eases the pain that we have both carried over the loss of George. He was a good friend and I know he would have been a greater husband to you these past thirty years.”
Jeremy sat at the table and gazed at the letter. His face crashed into his hands while his body heaved with the sobs of a man long tormented. The walls seemed to throw his sobs back at him, battering him like the shock of repeated explosions. It was over. It was finally over. After all these years, Katherine would know the truth. She would know why Jeremy had come home and George had not. George gave his life for Jeremy and it was a debt that he could never hope to repay. George chose death over Katherine. He had chosen Jeremy’s life over his own and it never made sense. It never could make sense. It was brave and it was stupid and it was sad. Jeremy could only ask her forgiveness now. The past was gone, only the memories remained. He hoped that the fan club address the talk show had posted would forward the letter to Katherine. It was all he could do. Jeremy prayed that it would be enough and yet, knew it was not. He folded the letter and placed it in the envelope. It would be mailed tomorrow.
Anne returned home to find Jeremy’s routine in chaos. He was not snoring away in his old recliner. There was no need for her to chide him over the earsplitting volume of the television. Instead she had found him looking at old family photos excavated from some long forgotten corner in the attic. Anne quietly sat down next to him and never once thought that she might ask what was wrong. She knew that something had happened to upset her husband. Anne had learned a long time ago to be here when he needed to talk and to give him space when he needed it. She placed her hand atop his and gently nudged her fingers between his own. The two spent the remainder of the afternoon reminiscing about the family they had built, the troubles they had endured and the glorious life they had lived. Anne had relished every moment of it then as she did now.
That night Anne read as she always had in the evening. Jeremy lay in bed next to her and dozed off as he was watching television. “He never could make it to eleven o’clock,” she giggled. After a while Anne began to realize that something was indeed different tonight. She put her book down on the end table and turned to her husband. His body was still and quiet. The torment he relived each night was oddly absent this evening. Anne gently leaned over him and kissed his cheek. She laid her head on his chest and listened. Tears rolled from her cheeks, splashing onto her husband. She did not know what had happened today but she was happy for it. It would be the first good rest he would have since the war.