Moments linger, trapped in thought. Two things right, then one thing not:
I’m a ghost.
Ghosts live in the memories of those that they touched.
It doesn’t hurt to die.
Jimmy Petersen (14 September 2001)
At seventy-eight years old, the four-hour drive had worn Jimmy out. His daughter really didn’t like him driving at all, especially in his old Buick. But he had to see his grandson Terry before he shipped out for basic training.
He’d kept turning the dial on the radio, listening to the talk shows. He’d heard it all before. It was like a terrible clock whose hands had come all the way around a decades-long dial, only to come back here again. This place where, in the aftermath, high concepts floated in the air like the smoke from the burning ships at Pearl Harbor. Or, this time, ash from the fallen towers. Patriotism. Country. Bravery. Heroism. The concepts that led young men to enlist. Sometimes, to die. Then, all too often, to be forgotten.
He’d be damned and go to hell before Tommy Winters’s name would be forgotten, though.
“Grandpa, it isn’t that I’m not happy to see you,” his grandson said when he arrived. “It’s just, you could get stuck somewhere if there’s another attack.”
“I know. But we’re two soldiers now, right?” He laughed. “Attack the U.S., you’re gonna have to deal with a Petersen.”
He paused. “I have to show you something. To tell you something, soldier to soldier. To tell you about someone that I served with. It’s why I drove. It’s the Tommy box.”
As his grandson looked quizzically, he opened an ornate red wooden box and began laying out items. Black and white photos with curled edges, some barely an inch square. A small gold cross. An obituary – Corporal Thomas Winters, 23 January 1944. A purple heart carefully wrapped in tissue paper. Two letters addressed to Mrs. Sarah Winters.
He pulled out the last item, a photo of a lean and lanky man in a uniform that looked two sizes too big. A cigar dangled from the man’s lopsided grin. The old man didn’t tell his grandson that they were drunk and on the way to a bordello when the photo was taken.
“Terry, this is Tommy Winters,” Jimmy said. Then, the memories came rushing back. Tommy, the first day at boot camp, laying in his bunk, reading an Armed Services Edition of Huckleberry Finn. Tommy, clapping his back and telling him that they had to be pals because Jayhawkers had to stick together. Tommy, running beside him and grinning as they chanted in cadence.
Tommy, after they hit the beach, running and lobbing the grenade toward the machine gun nest that had them pinned down.
Tommy, falling, blood soaking his uniform.
“I want to tell you about him. He’s the man who gave his life to save mine.”
Vanished past, the mind makes new. One thing false, then two things true:
Ghosts can control their actions.
She was the best thing that ever happened to me.
I like it when she thinks of me.
Sarah Winters Leftwich (25 May 1993)
“I might as well give you this, Jimmy,” Sarah said. “It’s a bunch of Tommy’s old stuff from the war. There’s nobody else to give it to, now. Tommy thought of you like a brother. And you’ve been so good to me over the years. My mind is not so good anymore. Take it.”
She handed the red box to the man and looked over at a picture of a teenage woman and a gangly man in uniform on the wall of her tiny room.
“That was the picture from the night he asked me to marry him. Him in that ridiculous suit, shoes shined so brightly that you could about see your reflection in them.”
The memories overcame her. She remembered how Tommy’s hair smelled. How he had asked her to see “The Wolf Man” with Lon Cheney for their first date. How they had talked about the Wolf Man being both a good man and a man who did terrible things. Their first kiss. His promise when he enlisted that he would come back to her. The poems he wrote in his letters.
Then, the worst memory. “We regret to inform you . . .”
A look of confusion came over her face. She looked at Jimmy and asked, “Who are you again? Why are you in my room?”
* * *
Years go by but thought stands still.
I know this and always will:
Ghosts can feel shame.
Eldon Greene (7 April 1968)
They sat around the table. Eldon, the man in the “End the War” shirt, was the oldest. The two other men were young, barely adults. Although it was the third night of the riots, none of them had been arrested yet. That was a combination of luck and the fact that they had, so far, been nonviolent amidst the chaos.
“Nothing is going to change unless you change it,” Eldon said. “MLK is dead. His way didn’t work. I’m done being ignored. I’m done being a second-class citizen. It’s time to act.”
“Look,” said one of the younger men. I know you had it rough, but we’ve all got to live together. We’ve got to.”
“Rough? Let me tell you about rough. I was thirteen, shining shoes outside of a military base. Dude in uniform comes up to me. “Make ’em sparkle, boy,” he says. So, I do my thing. I’d always add a little spit-shine at the end. People laughed and loved it.” Eldon shook his head and sighed.
“But I do it, and this jackass looks at me and yells, “What the hell? No little black boy gonna spit on my shoes!” He slaps me, knocks me down, and grabs this fancy red wooden box that I used to keep my tips in. “We’re even, now, boy!” he shouts.” His buddy yells, “Tommy, come on,” and he runs off with my box and my money.
“Cop watches the whole thing, looks at me and says, “Walk away, kid, and learn how to deal with your betters.” My betters, like I was nothing.”
“I’ll never forget looking at the nameplate on the Dude’s uniform as he walked off with my money. Corporal Winters. Jackass taught me the way it is, right there.”
* * *
The now is weak; the past is strong. Three things right, and nothing wrong.
Ghosts like me live in the memories of others.
My heaven and hell are made by those memories.
Someday, someone will be the last person to remember you.
Jimmy Petersen (23 January 2016)
They hadn’t given Jimmy long. The cancer was advanced, and at ninety-three, the plan was comfort rather than treatment. The hospice people came twice a day now.
Jimmy picked up the Tommy Box and handed it to the visiting nurse. “My grandson Terry should have this,” he said. “He’s a Captain now, you now. Career military. Maybe he can give it to a museum or something. The stuff in here belonged to a buddy who died in the war. It’s pretty much what’s left of his life. My daughter can see that Terry gets it.”
“Put a sticky on it, Mr. Petersen,” the nurse said. “She’s coming by tomorrow. You can give it to her then.”
He was so tired. So very tired. As he closed his eyes, he thought about the boy with the shiny shoes for the very last time.
Image: Google images