“You’re a big gasbag, Jersey,” the tallest one of the lot said with loud emphasis and staring at the smallest of his pals with that old in-charge look, “nothing but a big gasbag, I swear. You’re always bragging about your brothers and what they did in the service and you weren’t even in the Boy Scouts, for cryin’ out loud. How’s it make you such a storyteller all the time? And you never let go! Like you’re itching to tell us a story we already heard a half dozen times and then some.”
He shrugged, his most generous way of saying he was done … or practically done, at least for the moment, another trigger ready to pull. A head over the others, he’d be tagged by observers as the leader of the group, and in truth was called Coach, the shot-caller, noted as catcher in baseball, quarterback in football, and center on the basketball team.
The six old pals, late teens, teammates in three sports, hung out on the steps of the old town hall, their meeting place of an evening or by appointment for an occasion involving most all of them, the old building now on the backside of everything, the town having spread around it far and wide. To date, there’d been no complaints to or by police or town officials about the historic setting used as a meeting place of a different sort, the whole group well-known for athletic prowess, winning streaks or late wins on local fields of play. “They weren’t perfect, but they were good,” could have been said of them, and was often the sole mark of recognition and identification.
Jersey, the storyteller, said, “Nothing secret about it. They’re my heroes, besides being my brothers. You saying I should keep my mouth shut about them?” The manner of his voice said, despite size difference, he’d be willing to tussle over the point, make an issue of it. Dreamy-eyed he was, except when crossing the scrimmage line and going down and out, or snagging a third baseman’s bullet throw in the midst of a double play killing an inning. “They all got medals,” he continued with solid exclamation, all kinds of medals. Two of them, you know, never got home, not ever, and the others are down at the cemetery. I can talk about them all I want and you ain’t ever gonna shut me up.”
At this point, he was standing on the top step off the town hall entrance, evening well underway, a moon soon to snap at their attention with associated imagery, besides the old man in the moon.
“Awe, Jersey, I didn’t mean it that way,” Coach said, “but it’s like you don’t know anything else. You never say anything else. like nothing else in the whole world bothers you, plays with your mind. You don’t talk about anything new. There’s gotta be something else besides catching the long ball from me or knocking a double down to a single. We all know it. I bet you know it. Tell me what else you do besides playing ball and collecting stamps. Ball’s okay for any of us, but what the hell’s exciting about collecting stamps? That’s like next to sick or nothing!”
In a quandary, pulling at emotions and wonder, he shook his head, as if he was fully prepared not to believe anything he’d be told in response. Athletic he was at a look, handsome as advertisements, a lady’s man … when these gatherings were not in session. In spite of some odd demands or his line officer’s mentality, he was very protective of each one of them, would scrap with anybody for their good name, take one on the chin for their survival, their solid continuity.
Jersey, blond as butter, not a battle mark on his face from their athletic combats, interpreted as being pretty quick on his feet, suddenly standing there on the top step, said in a firm voice, “I collect stamps from places my brothers went before we lost them, and that’s countries or cities and islands and places all over the world where they were sent, on planes or ships, and they sent letters back to me and sometimes I hid them from my folks ’cause I didn’t want to let them know what was on their minds, what bothered them, and that’s why they swore me to secrecy, but they wanted me to know and stay home with the folks because I was the youngest, and Danny said he’d kick my ass all over town if I shot my mouth off and if he ever got home, but it was like he knew something we didn’t know, or at least I didn’t know even being his kid brother, and yet he didn’t want me in on any of it.”
There was a pause and each one of them knew he was gearing up, the handsome dog without a blemish on his almost angelic face. “I’ll tell you this, and swearing on our oath that he was a mean son of a bitch, was Danny. He could kick your ass all over town, Coach, and any of our buddies too at the same time. All of us, even. Johnny said Danny was the toughest guy in their outfit and they were together until their ship broke apart and he never saw Danny again and they already had been on three islands together in the war. The last thing Johnny said was, “Don’t tell Mom and Dad anything. Not a freaking word. That’s just how he said it just before he died, all that crap still inside him, I guess.”
“See, Jersey, that’s just it. What it’s like all the time. You get friggin’ wound up and the damned night gets over in a hurry. I heard it all and I don’t blame you, but it gets like something’s sticking to us all the time, like friggin’ black tar or lumpy glue and we’re caught in a grip we can’t get out of. And every night. Every time we sit here, like there ain’t nothing else in the world for you.” His gaze went to the horizon where earth and river and ocean met and he was measuring how far it was, or what kind of journeys had been made to get there from here. A sharp kick at one of the steps said he wished things would change or he could have changed them himself and had failed to do so.
Of that moment, Jersey shut his mouth and didn’t say a word for the next hour and Coach eventually said, combating the silence of one of his crew, “I’m sorry as hell, Jersey, and I didn’t really mean what I said, like I said before,” saying he was covering the whole issue and slapped him on the back as though everything was just peachy okay between them all, letting them all read the gesture for what it was worth.
A noticeable silence emanated from each member, and held sway it’s discomfort until Jersey offered, “Of course there’s other stuff to do.” An innocuous message had found delivery from the heart of elsewhere in the spread of semi-darkness under the moon, as though delivered in secret.
It kick-started Coach again. “Yuh, like what?” Taller he stood, expecting nothing in reply to abate his curiosity.
“Just stuff, that’s all,” Jersey put in place. The words hung in the air with the promise of a handshake, or an old tune scratching for its title, but nothing had been said, or offered up in black and white. If there was a commitment in those words, it came dull as the veritable old razor.
“Tell me what,” Coach demanded. “We change the subject and you change all over, like swapping uniforms. Tell me what! I don’t know stamps from Milky Way or Buttercups or off-tackle or take two and hit to right,” and his laughter filled the void with a variety of images they all were familiar with … “but never stamp collecting in a week of Sundays.”
Another pal, Sinagna by appointed name, said, “Tomorrow’s Memorial Day and I’d guess we have to be at the cemetery for the ceremony right after the parade,” and he nodded at Jersey and said, “Ain’t that right, Jersey? Ain’t that how we can celebrate Danny and Johnny and Dickie and Luke and all those other guys?” Realization was working on him with his lone brother deployed half a world away for more than half a year … any moment a shot could be fired.
Thus, in unwritten directions, but by social law, they spent a great part of the next day at the cemetery, especially at the veteran’s sections, and then at personal connections gone under grass or overhead, the cemetery being the final resting place for kin from as far away as four centuries.
They stood in long silence at one point when they tracked down Jersey at the graves of two brothers, buried side by side, their names cut with honor into stone, their military plaques with name rank and military unit molded in bronze and set into the ground beside their upright stone memorials. The stillness assumed solidarity groping for firm handshakes, understanding, sensing loss and the unknown which lay beyond all of them, the wonder and curiosity of events of life, those gone fleeting and those yet to overpower them with sudden moments of clarity. At odd moments of these enormities, personal to each one, some of their breaths slowed down and became measurable. None of them looked into the eyes of their comrades, afraid to see what was there, afraid to show what was working on their own end.
When services were completed, the parade reformed and went off for another ceremony at the center of town, the new band of brothers had gathered until one said with surprise, “Where’s Jersey? I haven’t seen him for an hour at least. Think he’s gone off by himself to make it alone?”
The question was understood by all.
For more than an hour they wandered around the cemetery, asked questions, found no trace of their missing companion. Coach at last saying, “Well, he ain’t here. Let’s go back down to the town hall. He might be waiting for us. For sure, he ain’t up to much else.” It appeared as another mild condemnation of Jersey as a member of the group.
The old town hall was a piece of history, dried, warped, leaning into a previous century, but like an old Ironsides at the Charlestown Navy Yard, still afloat. The boys came around the near corner and Jersey was nowhere in sight and darkness, like a ghost, was lingering for its appearance, which seemed to tag along after the young. Coach, looking over his shoulder, thought it was much like a dog chasing its tail, the endless pursuit of time and Jersey came foremost in his mind, knowing his pal was probably chasing something on his own and neither him or Jersey had an idea of what it was. But he knew the day had changed him; he could feel it in the back of his head, in his gut; there was sudden measurement, old memories clustering for attention, other things to pay attention to. The memory of a lost teammate to a sudden disease without a name he could recall, how in the earlier days, their parents living off the skin of their teeth, little of wealth about each home, and how the two boys would swap pants on alternate weekends, the brown ones for the blue ones so that others in school would not know the straits they lived in, Depression remnants having cut deep grooves into their lives, leaving inextinguishable learning and lore for ingestion.
Those old thoughts held him in place as he sat on the steps of the old building, wondering if Jersey was locked in place as a prisoner of sorts by the same kind of past … brothers tighter than possible because there was little to hold them together, a couple of pair of pants between two schoolmates carrying a secret.
The realization came on him, in its own way, that he was being as silent as Jersey had been. And darkness had begun its penetration all the way from the far peak of Vinegar Hill as if in concert with his thoughts, and those of his companions, now aware of something new with their leader, remembering from his own family lore that the name of the hill was from an Irish Rebellion battle site near Enniscorthy in Ireland about three centuries earlier; memorials like the ones Jersey carried did indeed rarely leave the soul. He’d tell Jersey when he saw him how he’d been touched the same way; they did share more than the spin of a ball, a hidden hand signal, eyes seeing things before they happened right in front of them, little more than conjured successes on the field of play.
The silence and the settling of darkness were paired up tight as brothers, and suddenly, without warning or baton, there came from some distant location the faintest notes of a gentled musical instrument, not recognizable at first, but then coming fully and quickly known as sounds of a bugle playing Taps floating over the whole town.
Several dog walkers, on each side of Main Street, stopped in their tracks, one hand looped tightly on a leash, one hand held cupped to an uncertain ear, not sure for a moment where attention had gone. A truck driver, at the wheel of a huge semi plastered with its own slogans in huge lettered emblems, seeing a stopped and attentive friend and dog, each at the same awareness, jammed on the brakes bringing his vehicle to a sudden halt. So did the car behind him, that driver leaping out of his vehicle ready to blast the driver in front of him, when he too heard the sounds.
Total street traffic stopped; attention swept all into this instant comfort zone, music catching hold of most listeners in the otherwise silent night, darkness just about the only thing presently on the move.
Across the street, in a colonial home, only minutes from his soul being knocked into place again at hearing The 1812 Overture, a man steeped in music stepped out his door onto the front porch, and instantly found in the 24 notes coming to his senses a known connection merging with Il Silenzio from an Italian Cavalry bugle call and finding its way into Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien and then coming all the long route into the mere salutation of Taps, but now and forever sounding out in honor at burial ceremonies of American military veterans.
The notes, each one, came sweet, apologetic in a soft manner, full of an awed reverence clean through to the 24th note.
Coach jumped up and said, “Where’s that coming from?” His ears were cocked, but his face said he had no idea of what was going on around him, like a first awareness of something else.
Sinagna stood at his seat on the third row of steps, “That’s coming from Vinegar Hill. I’ll bet it’s coming from that rocky scooped out place where we had a big fire one night. ‘Member that one? It was a doozy! I’d swear that’s where it’s coming from,” and the pause was significant as he held out both hands for silence, adding, “And I’ll bet that’s where Jersey is, and I’ll bet that’s Jersey playing a bugle. I haven’t heard him play it for years. He used to be pretty good at it even as a kid. He’s probably been saving this for all of us, but mostly for his brothers.”
And there was night, and impossible measurement and a soft hidden reverence sharing wonder and awe in a common complexity, only a chunk of yellow moon catching it all.
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