Army Brat

Notable Stories, Gemini Short Fiction Contest 2013




           They let him get away with murder — the schools. Said he had a “syndrome.”  What kid doesn’t? When we were young, you either worked hard and made good grades, or you were dumb, period. As far as socially, there were always a handful of cool kids who could pull three sentences together. The rest of us were — pardon the expression — retarded.

My sister refused to wash, this being the tail end of the hippie era, and she being fat and shy and trying desperately to fit in.  I refused to open my mouth in kindergarten and they sent me home.  I started first grade the next year right on schedule.  No big deal. I took it as my responsibility that I was behind. My point is we got over ourselves, with no special programs, shrinks, evaluations or interventions.

I told Sean’s guidance counselor: “His father is exactly the same — stubborn, argumentative, strong willed, and he’s a very successful lawyer.  There’s no point in us trying to get Sean to do his homework when you drill it into him that he’s mentally disabled and not responsible.”

We are all military brats.  My mother always gloated that I cost just ten dollars to be born, in contrast to my older sister’s $500, in a private hospital before health insurance became the norm. That ten dollar charge was for the sunlamp; I was born jaundiced.

My father served his entire stretch at Fort Campbell, and took his discharge just as Vietnam launched off. To his great chagrin, he never got to see the world.

My husband signed on just after that debacle reached its wretched end. Keith was one of those Go-to-Hell preppies whose father had no choice but to kick him out. Six months washing cars in Palm Beach, and he’d had enough of freedom. “Join the Navy, See the World.”  Spent years sixteen to twenty babysitting a nuclear sub in Sardinia, partying in the Med.  No danger of battle; the country was tired.

Like my father, Keith got in thanks a paid-in-full education — private school, lawyer. Smart guy, my ex.

Not so my son; he had the same waywardness, tanked the PSATs. Despite my constant exhortations and efforts to help, my son refused to file any college applications. Keith said, “Fine. You want to be a nobody, be a nobody. I won’t stop you.”

When Sean quit his job at Stop n’ Shop, I laid down the law,  “You need to get A job ANY job.”

He broke my nose. I told the doctor it was a gardening mishap. Keith changed the locks.

When Sean tore the front door off the hinges, we didn’t call the police.

In our affluent town, military service among the younger generation is so unusual that when Sean signed up, they did a feature in the local paper. This was early on, when the papers still thought there was a war worth fighting.                                                                                                                                    ~~~

After his deployment I saw him everywhere.  In the supermarket packing groceries, studying on a park bench in the fall sunshine. That lithe tan figure, jumping off a landscaping truck, or maybe he was the one making all that noise, banging nails into a neighbor’s deck.

I tracked him down and wrote every week, by email at first, then, when I didn’t hear, when I realized he’d put me on his Spam list, letter. Sent Wet Wipes, cocoa butter, underwear.  What they said he needed in the desert the same things I bought for him as a baby.  He didn’t write back.

I never realized how much our marriage was defined by fighting about Sean.  Keith obviously did, because two months after our son left he walked out.                                     I wrote Sean about the divorce, just the facts, saying that it wouldn’t make any difference; now he had his choice of two places to come home to when he returned. I didn’t hear back.

I listened to news reports with fatalism, dropped out of the online support groups for military families — they creeped me out, with their rainbows and sunbeams, stars and stripes and references to Jesus.

Then one Friday in May, a day of the bluest skies and most beautiful butterflies, I walked across my dandelion-strewn lawn with the view of the ocean and found in the mailbox – almost hidden, in fact, falling from between the pages of Bloomberg Business Week  – a letter.

Just a thin one, but the day was so glorious, I went inside for my cigarettes, and returned to read it sitting on the grass.

Dear Mom,” it began. “I must be the worst correspondent in my division.”  He told me first about a girl, a sergeant, he was “in lust” with, then told me to read “The Bluest Eye” a book she’d given him,  if I hadn’t already. (I had.) Then he complained about Iraq in general and the lack of showers in particular. He closed the page with, “I’m glad you finally saw the light about Dad.”  Nothing more.

And then I really did see him — leaning against a tin shelter, smiling at me that wide, thick red-lipped smile he got from his father. The clarity of this vision was startling; he seemed actually to be there with me on the rippling green lawn.


I looked up from the letter. Across the way in the distance, diamond lights on the cerulean sea, and nothing lay between us but this crystalline expanse.

I went up to my office and cleared the papers off my desk, sat down and wrote him a letter, a long one this time. In it I expressed regrets at the way we’d parted, and good wishes for his future, and much more. I said that our times together, good and bad, were the best of my life — do you remember those days , those days? I wrote, when he was small, and we walked through the Maine woods under pines with our sticks, walked on country lanes and beaches?  Something happened to me over the years.  Something made me close my heart. I thought I could keep it apart from you, but I didn’t.  I’m sorry you were affected.

I wrote finally that I was grateful for what he had done in breaking away — especially that.  It was the shock I’d needed to begin finding my way out of a deep disturbance, this long unhealthy marriage. I was finally over everything, I wrote, and for his help in this matter, I was forever grateful.

I wrote that I hoped he could make it to New York that summer, because I was moving there with a friend – a male friend I revealed. I wrote that because I wanted him to understand how things were, that I was not pursuing him or expecting him to come back and relive his childhood all over again.   I wrote that I believed he could accomplish whatever it was that he wanted to do in life, and wished him the best always.

“I love you.” I wrote at the end, and I never heard from him again, I just never, ever heard.

Sean is still on the family chart my sister paid some Internet company to fabricate.  His name remains in the glass case at the high school, among all the other outstanding players listed that year – football, baseball, hockey, wrestling – though some other boy — or girl — sits at his desk, holds his spot on the teams. His name still appears in his friends’ address books and in memorial Face Book tributes. One or two, who eschew the electronic grape vine, who ventured far, to California or Hong Kong  – called looking for him and I had to break the news.

Sean’s commanding officer told us the specific nature of his injuries, so my revised image of him was as a headless horseman, wandering the aisles of Stop n’ Shop, furious that they’d rearranged the shelves, were hiding things, wondering when someone had broken into his car and changed the control panel, why the world suddenly didn’t respond.

I have long since lost touch with everyone we used to know. But some things I have held on to, such as the music, which was the backdrop to our dramas. Many a time I’ve vacuumed the apartment where I live now, chanting along to the cheerful noise of the Police singing, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t stand losing …

It took me years to stop indulging myself that we might have made it up, been happy together in some sort of lasting family union.  In periods of illness, poverty and marital misunderstanding, I’ve taken comfort in imaging him in an incredibly prosperous and fruitful life, rife with love, family and friends. I sometime wonder if there aren’t times when he looks back, in the midst of his work and family and God knows what on the other side, and like me wonders why nothing seems to add up or make sense.

Most things about that time I have let go, and the things I do hold on to are random and harmless. The time I stumbled upon him with his girlfriend, pants unzipped, on the basement couch and we all laughed. The way as a small child he used to mesmerize in front of a restaurant’s tropical fish tank. His cruel-funny imitations of the homeless  beggars in the city. “He’p a brother out!” — when he used to beg me for the  allowance his father docked. These  things I hold on to – his quiet breathless voice going on and on about the kinds of rowing oars used by the Danish plunderers who preceded the Norman conquest — even his early interest in guns, the makes and methods of them. These things are benign, faintly pleasurable, and in some mysterious way, still feeding my inner life, like some deep forest wellspring.


It is mostly in the fall, and outdoors, where he was happiest, that I think of him. So it was a shock what happened the other day, because it is March in Manhattan. I was rushing for the morning subway train and just missed it, and suddenly felt such a bone-crippling sense of sadness and loss, standing there on the platform, that I doubled over. It took me a minute or two to trace the source of this chagrin, to link it up with the image I barely registered – the back of a dark-haired teenage boy’s short cropped head above a turned-up denim jacket collar – with the sense of sadness and loss I felt as the subway doors closed between me and the boy, and left me standing there alone on the platform as the train roared off.

But it is very unusual for something like this to happen. Mostly, I don’t think about him or any of it.

Mostly, I just don’t think.