by LESLEE BECKER
The name-calling started with an argument about John Wayne. We’d been watching a John Wayne movie on TV, my mother laying it on about The Duke’s good looks and heroism.
My father shook his head. “John Wayne never served time in the armed forces. It’s all an act.”
“Don’t ruin it for her,” my mother said. “She’s just a kid.”
My father faced me. “Well, it’s never too early for higher learning. Just remember to pick your battles, kiddo,” he said, and went upstairs.
“The Captain of Moods is at it again, but it’ll pass,” my mother told me. “Don’t believe a word he says.”
I might’ve been eleven, and wishing I could deliver a smart-aleck response, or do something heroic, but I went up to my room, and thought of names for my mother: “The Corporal of Gossip” and “Our Lady of Perpetual Frowns.”
When I visit her back in Maine, and she’s not spying on me, I swipe pictures of my father in his army days. Before he went overseas, my mother drove all the way to Fort Knox to see him. The one picture of this event shows her in a stylish suit and my father in full dress uniform, except for the moccasins.
I have a collection of magazine pictures of the World War II homecoming parades, and I’ve watched the newsreels countless times that show soldiers hugging women, husbands joining wives and babies, all of them dazzled by confetti. I think about that time, and know the wonder of a moment, the moment of the return from overseas, and the moments leading up to it, when it was all about to happen.
My father missed the big homecoming because he’d been wounded, recuperating in a hospital, so I have to adjust my mental pictures of the event to accommodate the particular facts of my parents’ reunion. It’s like a story you beg to be read to you, night after night, and your mother gives you an exasperated look, but she goes right on with the telling, and you’re in bed, and you hear her voice, and a book you can’t read yet unfolds for you, the story starting with how a certain young man met a young woman.
“Boy, was it ever a cold night. Early winter, but you could drive a car across the lake, the ice was so thick. Nice and toasty in the dancehall, though. A live band, and tables arranged around the dance floor. Smoky as hell from cigars and cigarettes, and there was this revolving globe light that made things flicker. I was sitting with my girlfriends, having a fine time, when this gangly soldier walks in. He takes off his cap, and his ears are sticking out like Bing Crosby’s ears, and I say to my girlfriends, ‘I hope he doesn’t pick me,’ but that’s what happened.”
I used to try to imagine what my father did to win her over, and then I’d conjure up what it must’ve been like when he got stationed in Kentucky, and she drove there to see him off. Then back she drives to Maine, probably asking herself, “What’s next? What’s a person supposed to do now?”
She’s a newlywed, stuck in an apartment above a small grocery store, and no furniture she can call her own. She has to take a job downstairs in the market, and when she goes upstairs, it must seem like there’s no division from the market below and its smells, and a big separation from her husband, so she must wonder what possessed her to do what she did. Like a role she’s learning to perform, she becomes like other women in town, who get through loneliness in their own way.
The newspapers and radio supply information about battles and the names of local casualties, and in the market she hears about husbands and sons killed or wounded. Eggplant-colored cars pull up to houses to deliver the news.
“It won’t happen to me,” she tries to convince herself, when she buys a splashy outfit. She’s got to perk up and focus on the reunion. He’d arrive in Portland, and she’d wear a bright green dress with white polka dots. Maybe he’d come home via Boston, and she’d travel there to meet him.
I know these things because of her stories.
“You can never know what it’s like,” she told me when I was I teenager, emphasizing her big worries, and how not hearing from him was hell on her.
“Waiting day and night, and then I get telegrams. Three! The one from the War Department tells me he’s wounded, and then another says he’s missing, and weeks later, a third one finally comes, saying, ‘I’m coming nome.’ A foul-up at the telegraph office.”
“A snafu,” I said.
“Right. I was so mixed up, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, and a big part of me doubted that I’d ever see him again. And get this. He lands in Vermont. I had to drive there to meet a ferry, one other woman there on the dock with a baby that won’t quit crying, and there he is, decked out in his uniform and those silly moccasins. He’s nervous, shaking like a leaf, looking at the bawling baby, and he starts bawling himself, so I tell him, ‘Shape up. Thousands of servicemen have returned home. Shape up.’”
“Or ship out,” I could’ve said, but didn’t because I felt that something had been scraped out of me.
“Maybe he wore his moccasins because he wanted to be comfortable,” I said.
“Comfortable,” my mother repeated, like it was a brand-new word.
When I asked my father later about what coming home was like, he said, “Different.”
“Different. Like how those pictures on the menus look one way, but the food in front of you isn’t at all like those pictures.”
There are no pictures of my father’s homecoming, just snapshots of later times, and of no interest to me. He’s not in them anyhow. He was probably ashamed of his weight and receding hairline, and so the album shows houses and cars, even our lawn.
We moved a lot when I was a kid, each time to a bigger house until we finally landed in a stately one with pillars and generous rooms. My father nicknamed it the Arc de Triomphe, and made my mother and me pose for pictures near the pillars. He was in his forties then, working overtime at his insurance office to keep up with mortgage payments. We stopped doing activities together on Saturdays because he hired people to do the outdoor work, while he performed the role of the hen-pecked husband, like those clowns on TV comedies. He wore Sansabelt slacks, a straw hat, polo shirts, and hammed it up with his golf buddies, escaping the house with their gear, as if going AWOL.
But he still led the Fourth of July parades because he’d been a highly decorated serviceman, and he’d hang around the fairgrounds afterwards, eating and joshing around. He’d come home later with useless stuffed animals, rubber knives, and whatever toys the vendors were hawking. I’d be watching television with my mother, and he’d come in, corned up on beer and food, describing what we missed.
“They went all out this time,” he’d say of the fireworks and the parade.
“Aren’t you hot? It’s got to be at least 90. Aren’t you hot in that uniform?” my mother would say.
“A highball will cool me right down,” he’d say, and go into the kitchen, but I’d stay in the living room, fixed on when I first saw pictures of my father’s time overseas. He dated them, and on the photographs of his buddies, he wrote their hometown, nickname, rank, and noted if they’d been wounded, missing in action, or killed.
He took pictures of a concentration camp, but when I was a kid, I couldn’t tell what I was seeing. It looked like a cart, filled with a jumble of rags and people. It was hard to tell where one person started and ended. I turned the picture upside down, and followed a foot, trying to see where it joined the rest of the person in that tangle of other feet and legs, until my finger landed on the head of a bald, skinny woman. Someone else’s hand covered the woman’s nose and part of her open mouth, like the person next to the bald woman wanted her to shut up.
I learned about the concentration camp from my mother because he refused to talk about it, and then the pictures disappeared from the album, and the pages got filled in with shots of me as a baby and later as a kid in cowboy getups I wore after school and on Saturdays, when running errands with my father, hearing people insist that I looked like him. “No doubt about it,” they’d say.
So, I completed the picture by trying on his uniform a lot. It’s still there in the closet upstairs. Well, it’s really her closet now, and filled with dresses, blouses, and some awful pantsuits in citrus colors, but I can slide by her outfits to get to his uniform, way in the back, and not even protected by a garment bag. It’s not the one he wore during the war. He gained weight, and had to have another uniform made for local parades. I went with him to a sooty black building and Merkel’s Tailoring Shop on a Saturday. I followed my father up a long flight of wooden stairs, scalloped out in the middle by generations of feet. On frosted glass doors were the names of a dentist, a bailbondsman, and, finally, Mr. Merkel’s shop.
My father stood on a little pedestal, and looked embarrassed, as Mr. Merkel, a fence of pins in his teeth, a measuring tape around his neck, made my father keep turning around. Mr. Merkel drew chalk marks on my father’s trousers and jacket.
“You’ve gone up two inches in the waist, and the jacket’s got to be let out for the gains in your torso.”
“I haven’t been getting much exercise,” my father told him. “Too much office work. I think something’s happened to my metabolism.”
“Put on the years, put on the weight, a common occurrence,” said Mr. Merkel.
“He’s still fighting The Battle of the Bulge,” I said, a feeble joke that earned me a sad look from my father. The Sergeant of Sorrow, I kept thinking.
He glanced at all the clothes on hangers and on the long worktable, and told Mr. Merkel that he sure was a busy man. Mr. Merkel nodded, and dropped my father’s uniform on the heap of clothing on the table.
“I’d hate to have his job,” my father said outside. “I’m glad I’m not in his shoes.”
I bet he never saw himself becoming an insurance salesman. Who would? Maybe he saw himself as an entertainer. Everyone around Portland knew him, and when he’d take me on his calls, and introduce me to his customers, I used to feel privileged.
That stopped when I was a teenager, resenting the epic time it took him to do anything, because he had to rattle on to everyone about himself, saying he was going to end up in the poorhouse, thanks to “the old lady,” and to “the chip off the old block.”
He pulled the same stunts when I went to college, one of the last freshmen to arrive because we stopped at a restaurant, and he got involved in a conversation with the bartender. When my old man finally saddled up, I heard the bartender tell him, “I could listen to you all day. All day, and that’s a fact.”
The bartender got a big tip, and my father got a lecture in the car from my mother about bad timing, and how he was spoiling my special day.
At the reception for parents, he handed out his business cards, like those parents from every state in the country would be impressed, and he yakked about how I was doing something he always wanted to do.
“Run away?” I said.
He gave back a sheepish grin. “No. Go to college.”
“It’s never too late to go back to school,” someone piped in.
“Nah, I’m no scholar.” He pointed to me. “The brainy one. Must’ve inherited smarts from someone else.”
“That’s not true,” my mother said. “He qualified for Officer Training School.”
“But my destiny took me elsewhere,” he said.
He got cancer when I was a sophomore. When I saw John Wayne on television at the Academy Awards, I knew it was curtains for him. His voice rasped, his eyes brimmed, and he was trying to act tough, but he was a reduced man.
My father tried to keep busy at first. He did errands downtown, and told people about his doctors and all the pretty nurses he knew on a first-name basis. He ordered vitamins, health books, biographies of notable people, VFW key chains with miniature license plates, and he bought a lot of fishing equipment. I knew that my mother must’ve been going through the roof over expenses.
On our last Christmas together, I brought a college friend home to take the edge off things. While my mother was in church, Pam and I sat at the table. My father made us some drinks, and began talking about what a meager Christmas it was going to be.
“I think you and your mother will be disappointed this year,” he said, sidled up to Pam, and talked about how he used to go all out for Christmas.
Poor Pam. What could she say? So I changed the subject to the mild weather.
“We’re talking here,” my father said. “Pam and I are talking.”
“I haven’t heard a peep out of her. Why don’t you calm down and relax a little?”
He got up from the table, bowed like a humble waiter, and left the room.
“He’s sweet,” Pam said.
I was all set to say, “Yeah, a real fruitcake,” but my father hollered, “Hey, you kids want to see something?”
He was on the living room floor, winding a key on a jumbo-sized bottle of peach-colored liqueur with a miniature ballerina inside that twirled around to sappy music.
“Dad, you better get up. She’ll be home soon.”
“Think she’ll like it?”
“Sure. You bet.”
“I usually buy her something bigger. This is the pièce de résistance this year,” he told Pam. “She’s getting a gift certificate, too, from a swanky store. She can get whatever she wants, but I wanted a package under the tree. This will please her, right?”
“It sure will,” I said. “You better hide it before she comes home.”
“I better hide it,” he said, and went upstairs.
I saw him one more time in July. He wanted to take me fishing, a first for us. He spread out maps and whispered his plans to me, like we going on a secret maneuver. It was a muggy day, so steamy and slow, even the trees seemed to droop and pant. He wore a flannel shirt and fishing vest, the pockets stuffed with pills.
I drove the car, following the map, even though the place was close to town, near the highway. We made a path to the river through heavy bushes. I heard him behind me, breathing hard. The ground near the riverbank was damp, water oozed over our shoes, and black flies and mosquitoes drilled around us. Since there was no dry place to sit, we stood on the bank, casting our lines, getting them tangled in the bushes.
“Maybe we should try a different spot,” I said.
“Nope. You’ve got to be patient. That’s what it’s all about.”
I watched him struggle to get his line out of a tree branch, gently at first, and then he yanked it hard, losing the fly, but he stood his ground, and with shaky fingers tied on another fly.
“Can’t let a little snafu stop me,” he insisted. “No, sir. Not me.”
I was glad for the rain, so we could call it quits, but he stayed, probably to prove that stalwart types had to learn to roll with the punches.
“Come on, let’s go home,” I said.
Sick people behave like children toward the end. One week before my father died, he came into my room, sat at the edge of the bed, and muttered in a kid’s voice about being cold and achy.
“It’s bad out. I wanna stay inside with you.”
Then he whispered my mother’s name repeatedly, like it was a voluptuous secret, and rocked himself until he fell over and hit the floor. I got up, and tried to pretend I was dreaming or watching a movie. I saw myself standing over him, and saw him lying there, his back furred with talcum powder. That thing that’s supposed to happen when adrenaline kicks in, and people perform amazing feats, didn’t happen. I couldn’t lift him.
“Jesus, Jesus,” our neighbor said when we called him over for help, and he saw my naked father on my bedroom floor.
Returned to his own bed, he slept like someone who’d come back from an unimaginable place to one familiar and safe, and then his eyes fluttered open, and he asked me to put a record on the stereo.
I played a Glenn Miller album.
“This is something,” he said. “This is really something.”
In they came, well-wishers—friends, relatives, and the men from his office.
“He’s back,” one of them said. “Thank God. He’s back!”
“Hey, what gives?” he asked. “What are you all doing here?”
“We’re having a party in your honor,” his colleague said.
“Why? What did I do?”
“You went away, and you came back,” my mother said.
“Hell, I’m A-okay. I could eat. How about some pancakes and ice cream? Jesus, what I wouldn’t give for that.”
And that’s what my mother fed him.
“I’ve got to get some new tires for the Buick,” he said. “We’ll go to Boston, and stay at a fancy hotel. You up for it?”
“I’m for it,” my mother said.
“I want to look up some old friends. Sarge, and that guy who loved sardines. What’s his name? You know, the one I told you about? His folks owned an upholstery store. Frankie. That’s it. Popular guy. Much admired. What’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing,” my mother said. “Tears of joy. I’m so happy to have you back.”
“Yes. You can have anything you want.”
He had a military funeral, “Taps,” soldiers firing a volley of shots, and my mother being presented with the casket flag, folded in a tight triangle.
She threw the flag on the floor of my father’s closet as soon as we came home. She said she hated anything that reminded her of the armed services.
“That’s where the trouble started,” she told me. “It spoiled him. He was not the same man I married.”
She went downstairs to meet with people who came to pay their respects, but I stayed behind. I took my father’s medals from his jewelry case, and then up in the attic, I grabbed binoculars, a campaign cap, and a knife and sword that had belonged to a high-ranking Nazi officer, and stashed everything in my room.
It’s been six years since he died, and I’m past the age he was when he met my mother, but I still try to get information from her about what he was like before the war.
“I almost didn’t go to the dancehall that night. The night I met him. I’ve told you what the weather was like, haven’t I?” she said in the kitchen.
“Yes. It was cold.”
“Only a fool would venture out on a night like that. Sometimes, after he shipped out, I’d think about him overseas, with no protection from the elements. How those soldiers got through it, I’ll never know, but he told me he pretended. When he was in that awful business in Bastogne, he made like he was a kid in winter, and he could come home to a warm house, dry socks, and clean sheets.”
I did the same thing by projecting myself back to when I’d gone tobogganing with my parents, the details all there. A blue sky, a snowy field indented by a crooked fence, an unblemished hill above the field, where we prepared to launch off in the toboggan commandeered by my father.
“He tried to reenlist, during that mess in Korea,” my mother said, forcing me back. “Like one time wasn’t enough. Imagine wanting to go through it again.”
“What stopped him?” I asked her.
“Me. He had obligations.”
“That would be me,” I said.
Back in my apartment, I have books on the war, and personal items that tell me what my father did to distinguish himself, like the Purple Heart, a marksmanship medal, and Master Sergeant’s stripes. He served in the tank division of Patton’s army. Old “Blood ‘n Guts” Patton. The books on the European Theatre campaign help me pinpoint where my father traveled and the battles his company fought. On my bedroom wall, I’ve drawn lines on a map to show his movements through Europe, and where he must’ve been when he was wounded.
You’d think it’d happen in a foxhole, a bullet getting you, powerful enough to spin a man around, sometimes send him flying. My father told me that’s how it really is when someone gets shot, not like in the movies. Men in his outfit, he said, were wounded and killed because of closeness. Because they were near an explosion, things—canteens, helmets, belts, even limbs, teeth, and shards of bone from another man—hit them. There’s a vacuum during an explosion, he told me, that pulls and flips you like a hooked fish, and you feel you’re going to suffocate. It happened to him, and he saw it happen to his buddies, like Frankie, who loved his sardines. I found his picture. A fat guy with crooked teeth. On the back of the picture, it says, “Frankie. Waltham, Massachusetts. KIA 12/44.”
Maybe Frankie died during the big battle in the Bastogne my mother had told me about. I’ll never know if my father was with Frankie when Frankie disappeared from history, but here’s what I picture: it’s almost Christmas, and the guys are hoping they’ll be lucky enough to make it out of the woods and return to a warm place and decent food. Better to think about this than the facts of the matter. The Nazis had the Yanks pinned down, and a German officer threatened total annihilation in two hours, if General McAuliffe rejected the officer’s proposal to surrender.
“Nuts,” was McAuliffe’s reply in a note to the Germans, who’d likely not even understand what the word meant.
By researching McAuliffe’s distinguished history of service, I found out that my father must’ve participated in liberating a sub-camp of Dachau. He and his buddies probably let their guard down, since the big battles were over, but then they entered that camp. It must’ve felt like they’d left the sunlight and wandered into a cave of darkness, their senses assaulted by unimaginable smells and sights.
For a while, I considered contacting men from my father’s outfit to get some first-hand information about him. The idea came to me when I saw a television program called The Big Picture that showed GI’s in Paris, being entertained by Maurice Chevalier in a nightclub. Hard to make out faces, with all the smoke in the room, and the sameness of the soldiers’ uniforms. Some of them aren’t even looking at the stage. They’re huddled, talking to each other, but there, in the back of the club, standing at least three inches taller than all the others, was my father. It had to be him. I’m positive. He might be telling the guy next to him about home, like they do in the movies—show a picture of the girl they left behind, and go on and on about what they miss, and what they plan to do the minute they get home. He must’ve imagined the homecoming, training his thoughts on that to get through the worst, and what happened, I bet, is that he felt gypped that he missed the big show by not coming home on a troop train or ship with the other guys. Plus, the baby bawling on the ferry dock maybe reminded him of catastrophe, the awful things he saw overseas. Who knows? I lack corroborating evidence because the war documentary didn’t provide dates, so I have to try to figure it out by relying on factual historical records of troop movements. I could try to hit my mother up for information about when he was wounded and missing in action, and how I came into the picture, but she’s notoriously unreliable about such things. Besides, there’d been a snafu. “I’m coming nome,” the telegram supposedly said.
He arrives on a puny ferry in the wrong state, and this woman he quickly married before shipping out isn’t like the one he met in that dancehall. She’s heavier, and wearing a gaudy polka dot dress. He doesn’t recognize her at first, and there’s another woman there with a baby that won’t quit crying. His own wife orders him to shape up, and get on with responsibilities, and start behaving like countless other servicemen. Maybe he feels like he went on an errand, and stupidly forgot to pick up something essential, like milk, and totally neglected his obligations.
But you can never really put yourself in someone else’s shoes, especially if that person is close to you, and subject to dramatic moods. “The Captain of Moods” went somewhere and then came back. And though he didn’t talk much about what had happened to him overseas, he did describe wounds that occurred because of closeness.
And here’s the funny thing: when I asked him for more details about the night he met my mother, he told me he’d been heading to Portland to see the sights, after being cooped up in the barracks during Basic Training.
“A little R& R,” I said.
“Right, but I got lost, saw a dancehall, heard some music, and figured what the hell. Why not?”
A door opens. A tall man glides in, young, and scenic-looking, in an army uniform. Everything’s flickering in the dancehall. People are having cocktails, a cuff of smoke around their heads. They’re listening to big-band music, and watching people dance, and at one table, a woman in a white dress points to the soldier, telling her friends, “I hope he doesn’t pick me.”
“Totally unexpected. That night,” my father told me. “See, I thought she was making fun of me to get laughs from her girlfriends. ‘I’ll show her,’ I told myself, so I zeroed in on the gal next to her, to ask her to take a spin on the floor. Then your mother gave me a wink.”
“And the rest is history,” I said.
“Don’t I wish,” he said.
I figured his head had gone cold again. I was confused and convinced that I should leave it alone. I remember feeling like I was at the dentist’s office, and old Doc Jenks was licking his lips and grinning when his silver instrument hit the sore spot. He even had a parrot in his office that always said: “Bet you’re scared.”
But I did ask my father what he meant by saying, “Don’t I wish.”
“The rest is now,” he said. “The other part is all inventioned.”
We were sitting on the sofa that night, facing the TV, and he was picking through a box of chocolates, removing pieces from their paper cradles, and examining each confection, like the choice made all the difference in the world. All he had to do was study the chart on the inside cover of the box that explained what the swirls on each piece of chocolate represented, but maybe he liked being surprised.
“Nuts,” he said, when he bit down on the candy, making a goofy face, and then he offered me the box, and I pretended to deliberate a long time, even though I knew that the one I chose was maple cream.
“Happy?” he asked me.
“You bet,” I told him. “I got my wish.”
He shuffled upstairs to the bedroom, the twin beds covered in pink chenille spreads—my mother’s little flourish—along with her elaborate vanity table and its picture of my father as a new enlistee, standing near a grove of trees with baseball-sized peaches, the whole picture looking like it’d been touched up by the photographer, the huge peaches unblemished, my father’s hair and face a funny red color, his regulation Army-issue shoes so shiny, you’d think they were blushing.
Easy to picture my parents’ bedroom and the photograph of my father. My mother has kept the bedroom exactly as it was, but I have my father’s army picture in my apartment, and I have a picture in my head of the night he told me everything was “inventioned.” I stayed in the living room, finished off the box of chocolates, turned off the lights downstairs, and looked out the window at the sky. Only a partial moon showed, and some clouds slowly drifting, like they didn’t care if they got anywhere.
I went upstairs, and stood near the closed door to my parents’ bedroom. A slim column of light thieved out from the hem of the door. My parents were whispering, and I hung around, taking a risk. What if I heard them going at it? What if I heard something awful and true about myself? But hadn’t that night seemed more lenient?
“Did I do all right?” I could’ve sworn he said. “Everything’s going to be A-okay, honey. Trust me.”
Leslee Becker has published a story collection, The Sincere Café, and individual stories in Ploughshares, The Atlantic, The Kenyon Review, Epoch, Boston Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. A former Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer in Fiction at Stanford, Leslee now teaches in the MFA Program at Colorado State University.