I sit up in bed when I see the headlights of a car arc at the end of the driveway, pause for a second over the mailbox, and then stop in front of my house. I reach across the bed to wake Susan before I remember she’s not there. Mine is the last house on a rural cul-de-sac in upstate New York. Sometimes in the summer, late at night, I get kids making out or drinking beer at the end of the road and if they make too much racket I walk up with a flashlight and ask them to move along. But it’s early morning, the week before Christmas, the kind of dry cold air that pinches your nose shut in the time it takes to check the mailbox. No one is drinking a 40-ouncer this morning. The newspaper guy used to drive by at this time of morning and slide a paper into the box, but I cut that off six months ago, when Dylan deployed. Some things you don’t want to know about. The headlights extinguish, and I can see the glint of the car chrome in the early morning moonlight. I slip my feet over the side of the bed, find my LL Bean moccasins, wrestle into a flannel robe, and turn on the light to go downstairs.
My hand looks ashen against the cool plaster wall of the staircase, tracing my fingers just below the family pictures hung to match the descent of each stair. The toddler pictures of the boys at top, Dylan and older brother Harry at Lake Taconic with sand shovels raised digging a pit to nowhere. Carving pumpkins at Halloween, Dylan missing as many teeth as the jack-o-lantern he carved. A picture of Susan and the boys around a picnic table in the back yard on a day that was too hot to fish, too hot to play golf. Foam clings to the sides of the glass of beer she’s drinking. Stepping slowly, carefully in the dark house – there’s no rush now. The picture at the very bottom of the stairs, taken over Fourth of July weekend last year. My arm slung over Dylan’s shoulder, over-exposed in brilliant Kansas sunlight, he in his camos the day before he deployed to Afghanistan.
He’s smiling in the picture, just 19 years old. I wonder what went through his mind that day, the day before he got on the cargo plane for a 20-hour flight across the world, a plane no doubt filled with the smell of sweat and anticipation and fear. What must it have looked like to him, glancing around that cargo plane as it departed? Was he still smiling like that last day in Kansas, happy to be finally out of the god-awful heat and dullness of the place and looking forward to an adventure, an adventure anywhere to do anything at the beginning of a life? Or was he scared shitless, like I would have been, puckered and old and grey.
Tears streamed down my face that day as I got in the car to leave, watching Dylan get smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror. Dylan stopped waving and turned to go back to the barracks to finish packing. Harry said not to worry, that he’d be okay. You don’t know that, I said.
That was the last time I saw him, the day I said goodbye.
I look out the window and in the moonlight can see two men walking down the driveway, approaching the house. In the early morning stillness, I hear each crunch of their boots walking over the frozen gravel. I turn on the porch light to greet them, I doubt they’ll just turn and walk away. I try to remember what Dylan said before he deployed, about someone from the military coming to the door, what did it mean if they wore their Class A dress uniforms and what about camos? An officer or an enlisted man? The Army has their own way of breaking bad news.
There’s a book on it, you know. Telling the bereaved next of kin that their son or daughter or husband just died. What time to call, what to wear, what to do in the case of inclement weather. It’s all by the numbers, the military way, a way of life I don’t understand.
I open the door before they knock and there are two men standing under the covered porch wearing blue Class A dress uniforms. The taller man is obviously the junior in rank and age. His blue beret covers a blond peach fuzz so short and transparent his skull appears naked. He looks up at me without making eye contact and shifts his weight nervously from foot to foot. His name tag says Connor and he must be Dylan’s age. The other man is short and has weightlifter’s shoulders, buzzed grey hair peeking from beneath a maroon beret. Gold buttons and gold twisted braid looped over one shoulder. His service marks run halfway up his arm and I know he’s seen some things, things civilians like I will never see. His name badge says Pace and I’m sure he’ll do the talking. We stand there for a moment, three men under the stark porch light in the early morning twilight, sizing each other up, before I finally come to my senses.
“Come in,” I say, opening the door wide.
The men step into the hallway and Connor glances at the picture of Dylan at the bottom of the stairs and I think I see a flicker of recognition in his eyes.
Pace looks up at me and his eyes are the color of steel wool. “Are you, sir, Brian Grady, father of Dylan Grady?” he says.
“I am,” I say, and I look for a glimmer of hope in his grey eyes and find none.
“Mr. Grady, the Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your son, Dylan, was killed in action yesterday, 1700 local time in Kandahar Province …”
And for a moment my knees shake and Connor takes half a step forward to catch me before I right myself on the newel cap at the end of the stairs, worn smooth from the passage of teen boys running up and down the stairs, all that energy…
“… The secretary extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in this tragic loss.”
The gold watch peeks from beneath the arm of my robe and it says 3:30 Afghanistan time, and I realize Dylan died less than 24 hours ago. What was I doing then, at that time? There’s a storm coming this weekend, I went into town to buy bread and milk and eggs at the local Stewarts. The eggs are in the refrigerator now, I never opened them. I glance again at the picture at the bottom of the stairs and Dylan’s smile seems faded and muted now. The sunlight not so glaring.
“Sir,” Pace says, in a voice used to giving orders. His bark snaps me back to attention. “Sir,” he says, “are you all right. Is there someone I can call for you? A relative, a neighbor?”
It’s part of the script I realize. Dylan told me before he left. The messengers will be in Class A dress uniforms and will come in person to deliver news of a death. They won’t leave until I have “assistance.” They won’t leave me alone.
“There’s no one,” I say. “His mother Susan died two years ago, before he enlisted.” The two men look at each other out of the corners of their eyes. “His brother Harry went out to North Dakota a few months ago for work.” I pause for a second and direct my question at Pace. “Does he know? Does Harry know?”
“No sir,” Pace says “you’re the primary contact.”
So that means I’ll have to be a messenger myself soon. I’ll have to tell Harry that the brother he built sand castles with, the brother he taught to drive a manual, that he’s gone now. The thought of that phone call fills me with dread, and I have two men in uniform standing in front of me.
“Come into the kitchen,” I say, and they stand there momentarily, and I realize they want to leave but don’t want to depart from the script. “Did you know Dylan?” I ask Connor, the tall younger man but it’s Pace that responds.
“I’m his recruiter, Mr. Grady.”
Then it falls into place. The day Dylan was sworn in, in a tiny Formica conference room at the recruiting center in Schenectady, a cheap podium in front of all the flags of all the branches of service standing at attention in front of the room. Dylan and Pace facing each other, right arms raised, Dylan repeating the oath of enlistment. They smiled at each other afterward and shook hands, and I could see in Dylan’s eyes his eagerness to wear the uniform, just like Pace. I was the only one in attendance — there’s a picture of the swearing in ceremony somewhere, one that never made it to the stairwell wall.
I turn and walk down the hallway toward the kitchen, and the messengers follow me in our own tiny funeral procession. There’s a round table off to the side of the kitchen, in front of the sliding glass doors out to the deck, where I watch blue jays and squirrels squabble for seed during the long winter days. There’s a half-empty bottle of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey on the table, and a single rock glass. The glass has the golden patina of the last drop of dried whiskey. I try to remember if it was from last night, or the night before. I reach into the liquor cabinet and take out three shot glasses and place them in front of chairs at the table. The men are standing around the table but don’t want to sit.
“We’re on duty sir,” Pace says.
I pull out a chair and sit down. I pour three shots of Jameson’s and they look pretty in an inordinate way sitting spaced on the naked wood table in the gloaming light of early morning.
“I just lost my son,” I say. “I have no one to call. Now have a drink with me and I’ll tell you about Dylan.”
Connor stands there, not flinching, watching Pace for a sign. And Pace mutters a soft “oh hell,” puts his beret down on the table and sits down. He smiles in a way that says he has seen death before and that this seems right. He shoots Connor a look across the bow that says Connor will sit, drink and shut the fuck up and that if the father of the deceased wants to get drunk we will do so in an orderly, military fashion. All this in a look, as Connor quickly takes a seat.
I raise my glass to the center of the table and the messengers raise their glasses and we clink the little shot glasses together and the clack sounds like the honk geese make when they fly south for the winter. “To my youngest son, Dylan,” I say and we tilt the glasses back and swallow amber liquid in one gulp and it burns against the pain of life on the way down.
“How did you first meet my boy?” I ask Pace.
Pace leans his elbows on the table and his jacket rides up his enormous arms. When he speaks his voice is gruff, like the sandpaper voice of a basketball coach worn out from screaming over the din of the crowd. “He came in the first time on his eighteenth birthday and said he wanted to be a combat engineer. He wanted to get into the action. I asked him why and he said he liked the sound of explosions.”
I laugh quietly to myself and I remember the going away party we had, a barbecue on the deck with all his friends from high school. When his friend Robbie asked Dylan why he was going into the Army, Dylan responded simply “to blow shit up.” They both had bottles of beer in their hands and it seemed like a good enough answer at the time.
“I got his contact information, and I sent him away,” Pace goes on. “He was so god-awful skinny and still wet behind the ears. I didn’t think he was ready,” Pace says. He eyes the bottle of Jameson’s and I realize I found the assistance I was looking for. I pour another round and this time we sip. “He kept coming back, week after week and I said, you’re not giving up, are you, and he said he wasn’t, not until I took his application. Turns out he did okay on his tests and three months later they sent him to Fort Riley, Kansas, to learn how to make things go boom.”
“He never told me that he was going to enlist,” I say. “He came home at Christmas and right here at this table,” I pound the table with both hands for emphasis “he told me that he dropped out of Hudson Valley State and I read him the riot act. I told him he had two weeks to find a job and that he wouldn’t be sitting at home playing video games and he just interrupted me and said ‘Dad, I joined the Army’ and that’s the first time he ever shut me up in the middle of a good lecture.” Pace reaches for the bottle himself and pours a shot and I wonder if he has some Irish in him.
“Dylan was in my company,” Connor says “I met him at Fort Riley. We went through basic together.” Connors voice is hushed, like talking to a priest in a confessional, his eyes down. And I wonder if he’s embarrassed to be alive, to be sitting across from the father of a dead soldier and drinking his whiskey and talking. “He got me through basic,” Connor says. “He convinced me that when we were going through red phase – when you don’t get enough to eat and they sweat the fat off of you – he convinced me that we didn’t need to eat to stay alive. He had me thinking that way. That you didn’t need to sleep or eat or anything, that if you wanted it bad enough, you’d make it through.”
The shroud of daybreak starts to lift, and two squirrels race along the deck railing looking for seed. I usually put out seed this time of the morning. Pace holds the empty shot glass between his fingertips. He looks up when I ask him how Dylan died. And Pace simply says, “It was a roadside bomb, sir,” and before I can ask a second question he adds “and that’s all we know.”
The bottle of Jameson’s stands almost empty in the center of the table, surrounded by three empty shot glasses. A bark from the front of the house breaks the silence, followed by a rap at the door. I know it’s Sarah, the widow from up the road who walks her lemon-headed retriever this time of the morning. I excuse myself and go to the front door. Nellie, her dog, is sitting on the porch and Sarah looks up at me, and it’s like she already knows.
“I saw the car in the driveway,” she says, “government plates and I wondered…” her voice trails off. I step down onto the porch and put my arm around her, in her broad flannel shirt and that’s when my tears start, falling down my face, falling into her grey hair, this woman I’ve had coffee with a half a dozen times on her morning walk. And her warmth feels good and she hugs me back like I haven’t been hugged in so very long. I take strength from her and dab at my puffy morning face. The messengers have gotten up from the table as this is their cue to leave. I shake their hands and I thank them as best I can for bringing this sorry news. As they walk down the stairs, I still have my arm around Sarah’s shoulder, and Nellie walks into the hall and lays down.
“Come into the house,” I say to her “and stay with me awhile. There’s a phone call I have to make.”
Banner Image: Pixabay.com